WASHINGTON, Sept. 27, 2017 – A bicameral pair of hearings mere hours apart both came to the same conclusion: More needs to be done to make sure wildfires are adequately addressed.
But whether the answer lies in providing more money to the U.S. Forest Service, slashing bureaucratic red tape, or some combination of the two remains to be seen.
The day started in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for a two-paneled hearing featuring four senators and three witnesses. The Senators – Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, John Thune, R-S.D., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont. – were all there to make a pitch for pieces of legislation they’ve introduced to try and combat the wildfire problem in the Western United States.
“We need to support the recovery of endangered species, there’s no doubt about that,” Tester said. “But blocking forest management across the board is not going to help our forests.”
Tester was speaking on behalf of a bill he and Daines introduced earlier this year that they say would “codify the position taken by the Obama administration that federal agencies are not required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service at a programmatic level when new critical habitat is designated or a new species is listed.” The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument in a 2015 decision (Cottonwood Environmental Law Center vs. U.S. Forest Service), which the senators are seeking to reverse through their legislation.
The House hearing touched on many of the same topics, but also included discussion from Democratic lawmakers and one witness about the role of climate change in the fires. Appearing before the House Natural Resource Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Dominick DellaSala, the chief scientist at the Geos Institute, said the recent outbreak of fires and insect outbreaks in Western forests is “mainly the result of climate change.”
“No amount of logging or suppression will stop weather-driven fire events,” he said.
Several of the lawmakers and witnesses in attendance took issue with DellaSala’s comments, offering anecdotal evidence about the need for good forest management through clearing of items that could fuel future fires.
Both hearings also dealt with the problem of lawsuits filed under the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act slowing forest management through litigation.
“We’ve created a second-tier industry in Washington of attorneys who can sue the federal government at will, recover their attorney fees, and stop a project or delay a project until it loses its value,” Greg Chilcott, a county commissioner in Montana, said at the House subcommittee hearing.
The issue of fire borrowing – when the Forest Service must take funds intended for other areas of their budget and instead use them to try to extinguish forest fires – played a backseat at the hearings to the goal of more effective forest management. However, the two are seemingly hand in hand in the debate as many say the lack of previous management efforts was brought about by fighting fires in prior years.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue hosted a briefing Tuesday afternoon for six senators to show how much the 2017 fire season has cost the USFS – about $2.4 billion by the end of the fiscal year – and to ask them to address the problem on Capitol Hill.
“We are looking for a permanent congressional fix,” Perdue told reporters after the briefing. Some of the assembled senators also floated the idea of pursuing disaster funding for Western wildfires in the same piece of legislation that is expected to provide relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Speaking to reporters after the Senate hearing, John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who chairs the committee, said he wants to see the funding and management issues addressed by the end of the year.
For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com