Rep.Scott Tipton’s (CO-03) legislation to allow greater state and local involvement in proactive wildfire prevention on federal lands cleared the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation yesterday. The Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act (H.R. 818) is supported by many Colorado counties and the National Association of Counties, as well as state and national environmental organizations and conservation districts.
Hinsdale County Commissioner Cindy Dozier and Garfield County Commissioner John Martin testified on behalf of the bill during the hearing, speaking on the need for more proactive management to restore forests to healthy conditions.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell also testified before the panel, and in response to Tipton’s questions acknowledged that more needs to be done to proactively manage forests rather than continuing to have to spend exponentially greater resources on suppression and wildfire cleanup efforts once it’s too late.
Tidwell cited budget constraints and employee reductions as one of the challenges facing the Forest Service in this regard. Tipton challenged Tidwell on this point asking why the USFS was spending money on further land acquisition given budget constraints, instead of prioritizing funds for forest management. The Forest Service is requesting nearly $60 million in FY14 for the acquisition of new lands. Tipton stated, “It’s a management decision. Shouldn’t we prioritize in tough economic times where those dollars are really going? And rather than asking for more land to manage, when we can’t manage the land we currently have, let’s apply those dollars to truly manage the forests that we have.”
The cost of proactive healthy forest management is far less than the cost of wildfire suppression and cleaning up the aftermath. According to the Forest Service, the agency spent $296 million on hazardous fuels treatment nationwide in FY2012 while spending $1.77 billion on wildfire suppression during the same time. Tipton’s bill would streamline hazardous fuels reduction projects and make up-front investments in forest health, so that we can spend fewer taxpayer dollars fighting fires later on. Tipton’s bill carries no cost to tax payers and places no requirement on state and local officials to act, providing Governors and County Commissioners with the ability to designate high-risk areas and develop emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects on federal lands.
“The Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act can help reduce the cost imposed on taxpayers due to litigation, expedite emergency mitigation procedures, and restore our forests before they go up in flames, when the costs are far greater,” said Tipton. “H.R. 818 prioritizes conservation and will help reduce the investment required of taxpayers by making public private partnerships more feasible.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 9.3 million acres of land burned in 2012. Much of this occurred on or in close proximity to federal public lands. Taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of wildfires by addressing those conditions known to cause them including unnaturally dense undergrowth and beetle-killed timber, will reduce fires of the magnitude experienced last year in the future.
“While the bark beetle outbreak and other hazardous forest health conditions have affected state and private lands, hazardous conditions are often most heavily concentrated on federal lands where a lack of active forest management has allowed the epidemic to spread to catastrophic levels. Of the 6.6 million acres infested by the mountain pine beetle in Colorado, over 4 million acres – an area larger than Connecticut – are on federal forest lands,” said Tipton. “Federal efforts to responsibly manage our forests and prevent the conditions for the fires that have raged across Colorado and other Western states have been hampered by an unwieldy regulatory framework that systemically prevents progress toward healthy forests.” Read Tipton’s full statement.
“Hinsdale County had the largest wildfire in its known history, the Little Sand Fire, which burned nearly 25,000 acres in Archuleta and Hinsdale Counties. We therefore support proactive measures to address forest health and mitigate the dangers intense wild fires pose to human safety, property, infrastructure, wildlife habitat, and water and air quality,” said Hinsdale County Commissioner Cindy Dozier. “Because we are primarily public land, the issues addressed in HR 818 are of extreme importance to us and, we think, to any other state or county with forested lands.” Read Dozier’s full testimony.
“The local use doctrine regarding public land is extremely important to us. Nearly 70 percent of the lands in Garfield County are managed by Federal agencies. Forest management practices are a crucial part of the picture. The vitality and strength of the Western United States is closely tied to the health of our public lands,” said Garfield County Commissioner John Martin. Read Martin’s full testimony.
The Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act has been endorsed by:
- The Pueblo, Delta, Dolores, Eagle, Hinsdale, Montrose, Moffat, Huerfano, Montezuma, Mesa boards of county commissioners
- American Farm Bureau Federation
- American Forest Foundation
- Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies
- Colorado Timber Association
- National Association of Conservation Districts
- National Association of Counties
- National Association of State Foresters
- National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
- National Wild Turkey Federation
- Public Lands Council
- Quality Deer Management Association
- Safari Club International
- Society for Range Management
- Tread Lightly!
- Western Energy Alliance
Additional background on the Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act:
The current regulatory framework and cumbersome red tape have inhibited forest managers from active forest management. Excessive litigation threatens projects that would otherwise forestall devastating wildfires and help restore healthy forests. While previous legislative initiatives have integrated state and local prerogatives into the management process, more can be done to give local communities situated near and in federally managed forests the vital tools to prevent wildfires before they happen, and save taxpayers the millions they cost.
The Healthy Forest Management Act and Wildfire Prevention Act gives states increased control over forest management decisions in high-risk areas on National Forest System lands and lands under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. By allowing governors, in consultation with county commissioners from affected counties as well as affected Indian tribes, to designate high-risk areas and develop emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects for those areas, states can better protect their communities and natural areas and help ameliorate those conditions that lead to unhealthy forests and devastating wildfires.