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Hearing of the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health - GAO Five-Year Update on Wildland Fire and Forest Service/Bureau of Land...

Hearing

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. Walden. The Subcommittee on Forest Health will come to order. The Subcommittee is meeting today to hear testimony on the Government Accountability Office Five-Year Update on Wildland Fire, and on the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Accomplishments in Implementing the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

Under Committee Rule 4(g), the Chairman and the Ranking Minority Member may make opening statements, and if any other members have statements, they can be included in the hearing record under unanimous consent.

It is fitting that this Subcommittee's first full hearing in the 109th Congress focuses on the issue of hazardous fuels and its relationship to wildland fire. While this Subcommittee will take up many other important topics in the next two years, when it comes to the ecological integrity of our Federal forests, all other issues take a back seat. The enormity and severity of the problem and our ability to affect it will have more impact on wildlife habitat, water quality, air quality and community protection than frankly any other forest issue.

To explain the explosive nature of the problem, let me give you some forest growth statistics on our national forests. Total net growth is currently about 20 billion board feet per year, while total mortality is approximately 10 billion board feet per year, and the annual harvest is less than 2 billion board feet per year. In other words, we are removing less than one-fifth of what is dying on our forests and less than one-tenth of what is growing. This is the 800-pound gorilla that is wreaking havoc on our national forests and why today we have approximately 190 million acres of Federal land at high risk of catastrophic fire. While some of you may have grown tired of our call to thin and treat our forests, let me tell you this: you haven't heard anything yet.

In 1999, at the request of the Subcommittee, the Government Accountability Office produced an analysis of catastrophic wildfire that stated, and I quote: ``The most extensive and serious problem related to the health of national forests in the interior West is the overaccumulation of vegetation, and catastrophically destructive wildfires.'' This is the GAO making these comments, not us. The GAO's report in no small way helped to set the stage for many of the positive changes that have occurred in the five years following the release of that report, from the creation of the National Fire Plan in 2000 to the development of the 10-Year Comprehensive Wildfire Strategy guided by the Western Governors' Association, to the Bush Administration's Healthy Forest Initiative, to the 108th Congress's passage of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, and to the quadrupling of funds spent by the agencies on hazardous fuels reduction and the resulting quadrupling of acreage treated--much has been done to address the problem.

This week, again at the request of this Subcommittee, the Government Accountability Office produced a five-year follow-up report, which recognized that much progress has been made in wildfire management, from prevention to suppression. The report confirms what we had hoped to hear and what many of us worked so hard to achieve as we developed and moved the Healthy Forest Restoration Act through the Congress two years ago. But the GAO also confirms what many of us have seen and experienced recently as we visited Federal forests, that we have a lot more to do and a long way to go. So I have traveled around our national forests since passage of HFRA. I have found that while some forest units are aggressively implementing the law, others have hardly begun. The GAO's report corroborates those shortcomings, stating that a number of the agency's local fire management plans do not meet agency requirements. Particularly the GAO reported that an overarching cohesive strategy that identifies long-term options and needed funding requirements is still not in place. The Western Governors' Association, in its own November 2004 report and in written testimony submitted for this hearing, makes similar recommendations.

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Mr. Walden. So the purpose of this hearing is to evaluate the GAO's recommendations in depth and to discuss next steps with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior, while reviewing the important accomplishments that have been made thus far.

We will also hear from others on different aspects of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act implementation, from the needed implementation of the all the titles of this law to the role and value of community wildfire protection plans.

It is my hope that when the GAO testifies again to this Subcommittee five years from now their report will say that our efforts in this Congress, with this Administration, in cooperation with states and other allies, have made the crucial difference between creating a healthy dynamic forest landscape to one that continues to be choked with too much growth, too much mortality and too many catastrophic wildfires.

[The prepared statement of Mr. Walden follows:]

Statement of The Honorable Greg Walden, Chairman, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health

It is fitting that this Subcommittee's first full hearing in the 109th Congress focus on the issue of hazardous fuels and its relationship to wildland fire. While this Subcommittee will take up many other important topics in the next two years, when it comes to the ecological integrity of our federal forests all other issues must take a back seat. The enormity and severity of the problem, and our ability to affect it, will have more impact on wildlife habitat, water quality, air quality, and community protection than any other forest issue.

To explain the explosive nature of the problem let me give you some forest growth statistics on our national forests. Total net growth is currently about 20 billion board feet (bbf) per year, while total mortality is approximately 10 bbf, and the annual harvest is less than 2 bbf. In other words, we are removing less than one-fifth of what is dying on our forests and less than one-tenth of what is growing. This is the 800 pound gorilla that is wreaking havoc on our national forests and why, today, we have approximately 190 million acres of federal land at high risk of catastrophic fire. While some of you may have grown tired of our call to thin and treat our forests, let me tell you this: you ain't heard nothing yet.

In 1999, at the request of this Subcommittee, the Government Accountability Office produced an analysis of catastrophic wildfire, that stated: ``the most extensive and serious problem related to the health of national forests in the interior West is the overaccumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires.'' The GAO's report, in no small way, helped to set the stage for many of the positive changes that have occurred in the five years following the release of that report---from the creation of the National Fire Plan, in 2000, to the development of the 10-Year Comprehensive Wildfire Strategy guided by the Western Governors' Association, to the Bush Administration's Healthy Forest Initiative, to the 108th Congress's passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, to the quadrupling of funds spent by the agencies on hazardous fuels reduction and the resulting quadrupling of acres treated---much has been done to address the problem.

This week, again at the request of this Subcommittee, the GAO produced a five-year follow-up report, which recognized that much progress has been made in wildfire management, from prevention to suppression. The report confirms what we had hoped to hear and what many of us worked so hard to achieve as we developed and moved the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

But the GAO also confirms what many of us have seen and experienced recently as we've visited federal forests---that we have a lot more to do and a long way to go. As I've traveled around our national forests since passage of HFRA, I've found that while some forest units are aggressively implementing the law, others have hardly begun. The GAO's report corroborates these shortcomings, stating that a number of the agency's local fire management plans do not meet agency requirements. Particularly, the GAO reported that an overarching cohesive strategy, that identifies long-term options and needed funding requirements, is still not in place. The Western Governors' Association in its own November 2004 report, and in written testimony submitted for this hearing, makes similar recommendations.

The purpose of this hearing is to evaluate the GAO's recommendations in depth and to discuss next steps with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior, while reviewing the important accomplishments that have been made thus far. We will also hear from others on different aspects of HFRA implementation, from the needed implementation of all the titles of this law, to the role and value of Community Wildfire Protection Plans.

It is my hope that when the GAO testifies again to this Subcommittee five years from now, their report will say that our efforts in this Congress, with this Administration, in cooperation with states and other allies, have made the crucial difference between creating a healthy, dynamic forest landscape, to one that continues to be choked with too much growth, too much mortality and too many catastrophic wildfires.

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Mr. Walden. Thank you, Mr. DeFazio.

I would just tell the committee as well, as we did last year, I have sent a letter to the Chairman of the House Budget Committee dealing with the issue of trying to set aside funds in advance that could be drawn upon within the budget framework to fight fire. As you recall, we were successful last budget in getting $500 million set up in a special account if you will that can be drawn upon so that they don't have to rob from some of the hazardous fuels accounts and other accounts if the fire season gets out of hand.

Fortunately, last year, not coincidental with my chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, we had very few forest fires out in the west.

[Laughter.]

Mr. Walden. I don't know that I had anything to do with that, but clearly our committee was at its best.

Mr. Tancredo, we are just completing opening statements. Do you have any comments you would like to share before we go to the witnesses?

Mr. Tancredo. How are you today?

Mr. Walden. I am excellent.

Mr. Tancredo. No, I do not.

Mr. Walden. Thank you.

At this point I would like to introduce the witness on our first panel. Today we have Ms. Robin Nazzaro. I hope I pronounced that correctly. Director, Natural Resources and Environment for the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

I would like to remind our witness that under the rules you are asked to limit your oral statement to 10 minutes. You will have 10, the other witnesses will have 5. But of course your entire statement will appear in the record, and we certainly appreciate the work that you and your colleagues have done on this very informative report, which I have read in great detail. We welcome you here and thank you for your objective look at the problems that we face.

I now recognize Ms. Nazzaro for your testimony. And I understand you are joined by Chester Joy, is that correct?

Ms. Nazzaro. Yes.

Mr. Walden. And anyone else that you may want to identify.

Ms. Nazzaro. And Mr. Bixler will be running my slides for me.

Mr. Walden. Thank you, Mr. Bixler on slides.

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Mr. Walden. Ms. Nazzaro, thank you, and I commend you for coming in 16 seconds early too.

[Laughter.]

Mr. Walden. A very helpful presentation.

I would just point out for our committee members, you each should have a document that looks similar to this that is a report of the fuels treatment accomplishments for each State, in theory the State in which you reside, and so for Fiscal Year 2004. So you will have some good information there broken out by agency type, whether it is the Bureau of Indian Affairs, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service and U.S. Forest Service, and the way that the treatments occurred and whether it was in a wildland-urban interface of not.

Then also we have provided for you a healthy forest report. This is information from the U.S. Forest Service which we have requested on a--did you say weekly basis or monthly basis--a monthly report on the initiatives being taken to make our forests healthier and our communities more secure.

So I would draw your attention to both of those documents which you should have before you.

I have a couple of questions I would like to pose to you, and then we will go for questions from the other committee members. Ms. Nazzaro, do you know the status of the 2002 Interagency Options Study concerning funding levels?

Ms. Nazzaro. No, we do not.

Mr. Walden. So you don't know whether it has been adopted or not?

Ms. Nazzaro. No, we do not know that.

Mr. Walden. Can you describe that for me, what you do know about it, if anything?

Mr. Joy. Mr. Chairman?

Mr. Walden. Is your mike on by the way?

Mr. Joy. I am sorry. Mr. Chairman, the agency study has been on the websites, et cetera, and it was intended to be an interagency cohesive strategy document to support that. It has not yet been released by the agency. And in response to our report, one of the things they mentioned was there were some adjustments in the numbers that might have to be taken into account because of other activities not funded by the fuel account, but had some effects. But it is by far and away, obviously, the most comprehensive study that outlines options and cost.

Mr. Walden. I commend what has happened over the last five years, a quadrupling of the monies for fuel reduction is certainly a major step forward. I think all of us who are involved in this issue, as I think most of us on this Subcommittee certainly have been over the years, know that with the streamlined process we anticipate there will be additional demands for funding to be able to work through more projects because we should see more projects come on line, so I think we are all cognizant of the need for more money and also the budgetary constraints in which we find ourselves. But I concur with my colleagues that we are best putting our money in an investment that reduces the threat of fire and increases the health of our forests than wail until damage is done.

Since your report in 1999 you state that important progress has been made. Is there any reason for you to believe that in another five years you won't also find some significant process, or have you found reluctance among the agencies to move forward? I understand they have indicated an inability to comply with what you have recommended with to their '06 budget and some difficulty there.

Ms. Nazzaro. On that last point there may have been a misunderstanding though as to were we asking for the cohesive strategy that we had initially recommended five years, that that be completed in time for the '06 budget. Rather, what we are talking about is a tactical plan that would give you, if you will, the who, what, where, when is this cohesive strategy actually going to be developed. We have not seen any reluctance on the agency part, and as we have mentioned, we have seen significant progress and would expect significant progress to continue. However, we do see some significant challenges for them as well, as we pointed out.

Mr. Walden. In your testimony you indicate a need for more cost effective approaches to reducing fuels, and obviously we agree with that, being stewards of the taxpayers' purse. I have heard some complaints that little mechanical thinning is taking place, which is more expensive, and that prescribed fire is currently the number one tool for reducing fuel loads. Isn't it true that some of the highest priority areas though, such as the wildland-urban interface, are indeed the most expansive to treat because we need to do it mechanically? How do we deal with this problem?

Ms. Nazzaro. At this point our recommendation is to set priorities. If they would develop the various options and then look at the available funding or funding needs, at least we would know that we are funding, you know, the optimal areas and we are appropriately using the funding that is available.

Mr. Joy. Mr. Chairman, I might also add, as we said in 1999, essentially what you said there, some of the highest priority areas are obviously wildland-urban interface. There you have to use mechanical. So there is going to be a need to not always use the cheapest method but it is not very effective to have a town burn.

But at the same time, one of the things about the numbers that you need to understand is that for many, many years in the Southeastern part of the United States, burning, controlled burning has been used across wide areas and will continue to be because they can more safely do it than they can in the dry west. So part of the imbalance in the figures is that essentially you will see a lot of controlled burning because of the southeast. But on the other hand, in the interior west, where you represent, obviously there is going to have to be mechanical around towns.

Mr. Walden. And I guess that is one of the issues I intend to continue to pursue because just a raw acreage number may not speak to the quality of work being done. It may, but where you can burn, for example, as you have indicated, and accomplish a lot in some areas of the country, we can burn in the West too, but it may not be where we most need to do the work. So somehow we have to make sure this is balance, and clearly we have the experts to achieve that.

Ms. Nazzaro. And that brings attention to where we were talking about the appropriate measurement for success as to what had they accomplished. Just talking about the total number of acres burned is not adequate. You need to know how many of the most hazardous acres have been reduced to less hazardous conditions.

Mr. Walden. And how those were determined.

Mr. Joy. Mr. Chairman, if I might add one more thing about that because I think it is so on point, what you have raised about this choice business. Although it is more expensive to necessarily have to do mechanical around the wildland-urban interface, the fact of the matter is that the cost of the firefighting in that area to protect that is going to also be massively more expensive. So even though it may cost more as investment to reduce fuels there, you are going to be saving a very high investment in what we are going to throw out to stop that there.

Another thing I would add, and that is I think the distinction by what we meant be a cohesive strategy, is it is based on cost effectiveness in terms of what it is, the expenditure you have to make to prevent the other expenditures.

Mr. Walden. Right. That was Mr. DeFazio's point.

Mr. Joy. And over time it is making the investment now so that you don't have to do it later. It is both time and place, the cost effectiveness. That is what we mean by cohesive and how it is different than say the 10-year comprehensive strategy.

Mr. Walden. I thank you very much.

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Mr. Walden. Staff indicates to me that in Fiscal Year 2004 about 62 percent of the funds were spent in the wildland-urban interface. We will hear from the agency to further deal with that. Obviously, they need to follow our statutory guidelines.

We want to thank this panel very much. Thank you and your colleagues for the work you have done on this report. It is invaluable information as we pursue this together to make our forests healthier and safer. Thank you for being with us. By the way, obviously, the hearing will stay open, the record, for 10 days, so if committee members who are here or not here have additional questions, they will be able to submit those and get answers.

Now I would like to introduce our second panel. On Panel II we have The Honorable Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, U.S. Department of the Interior; and The Honorable Mark Rey, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Let me remind our witnesses that under our committee rules you are asked to limit your statements to five minutes, and of course your entire statement will appear in the record.

I would now like to recognize Ms. Watson if you are ready for your statement. Thank you for being with us, and thank you for all the work you do in the agency.

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Mr. Walden. Thank you, Mr. Rey. One of the questions that came up in our hearing--it seems like a week ago, but I think it was yesterday--on biofuels, was the notion that the stewardship contracts at 10 years simply are not long enough for those who would like to participate or join in the process to be able to purchase the equipment and know they will have a steady supply and a guarantee to enter into creation of new biomass facilities.

Have you looked at the option of maybe having us extend those contracts out, say, to 20 years or something, to really gin up this market and to create certainty for private sector investment? Is that something that you are hearing, or a concern that is being raised?

Mr. Rey. I have not heard that concern, but it is a logical concern to be raised depending on the size of the capital investment that is being considered in order to use low value material. The larger the capital investment required, the longer the amortization schedule that the investor would like. The longer contract provides them to engage a lender in negotiating a longer amortization schedule for whatever loans and investments thereafter get to be made. So it is logical that a longer contract term would be beneficial in that regard.

On the other hand, both the General Services Administration and the Office of Management Budget are very wary of the Government signing on to long-term contracts in that that increases the uncertainty associated with what the Government is committing as well as any downstream liability if circumstances on the ground change, so that is a balance that has to be struck.

We have had some 10-year contracts issue in the past year, and those have resulted in some new investments and new infrastructure that have occurred, and so we have had some investors who have been willing to do that.

Mr. Walden. Would it work to give you the authority to go up to 20 years but not mandate that they be 20, to give flexibility then in certain circumstances?

Mr. Rey. Sure. It would give us more flexibility. We would have to put a lot more reopeners for a lot more contingencies in a contract of that length, and you could only tell for certain whether that is helpful once we actually completed a contract negotiation with an individual contractor.

Mr. Walden. Let me move on. I have a couple other questions in the time that remains. One of them, as you know, Mr. Rey, I have talked to you personally about and have a real commitment to managing the HFRA acreage at the--I want to know forest by forest how HFRA is being utilized, if it is. Do you have the ability to hold your local line officers accountable for using the new authorities in HFRA at that level and then being able to report back to the committee? Because I also want to know is it working or not, or are they stumbling into problems that we need to address, or are they not using it, or are they using it fully?

Mr. Rey. I think the short answer is they are using it generally very well. We do have the ability and are holding them accountable to it, and we do have the ability to report on their progress on a forest by forest basis, and I have a printout that I will submit for the committee's record for the hearing today on progress to date on each national forest.

Mr. Walden. Thank you.

Mr. Rey. What you will find when you look at the printout is about what you would expect, that is, the majority of forests are using the new authorities, both HFRA and HFI authorities. There are a few forests that haven't gotten to it yet. Those are forests that by and large have circumstances that don't necessarily make this as high a priority, or specific tools as useful in their circumstances, and as you would guess, those are mostly forests in the Northeast.

Mr. Walden. I have two more questions in a minute 20, so I will try and keep them brief. Under HFRA Title I projects, do you have any idea how many of those are being litigated and how that compares to fuels reduction projects that are non-HFRA?

Mr. Rey. We haven't been implementing HFRA projects long enough to get a good sample set to know whether they are going to be litigated any more or less frequently than other projects, and that is because we did the first generation of HFRA projects last summer. They are moving to completion now. The appeals process is completed. Now litigation is going to start. A few of them have been litigated to be sure, but I don't think we have enough data to make a comparison between those and--

Mr. Walden. But you are finding less litigation under HFRA or more?

Mr. Rey. Still too early to say. I would say about the same. I would say that generally speaking, the rate of challenges of fuels projects has been increasing to some extent, but our success rate in defending them has been increasing as well.

Mr. Walden. One final question because I know it is one many of us on this Subcommittee were involved in last year, and that is the issue of firefighting and especially the issue of the air tankers. I have recently seen in the press some Western Governors have expressed their interest as well. Can you just give us a brief update maybe, each on you, on the air tanker and firefighting process we see unfolding for this summer?

Mr. Rey. I think the first thing to note is that last year, with a limited number of large air tankers for a portion of the year, our success rate at extinguishing fires at initial attack was superior to 2003. In 2003 we succeeded in extinguishing 98.3 percent of all ignitions on initial attack. Last year we succeeded in extinguishing 99 percent of all ignitions on initial attack. That success in extinguishing 70 additional fires--that is what it amounts to, 70 additional fires that did not escape--saved us on the average $22 million in fire suppression costs.

So our projections about the success of a modified fleet with a heavier reliance on helicopters and single-engine tankers appears to have been well founded.

Now, that having been said, there is, as we have said in hearings before, still a role for the large fixed-wing air tankers, and we have RFPs out already to begin to contract with them for this year. In response to the initial RFP we will be putting I the air we believe nine P-3 Orions. That is the one model that we have established operational life limits for. We have ongoing studies to try to establish--I think we will succeed in establishing operational life limits for the P-2Vs and the DC4s, 6s and 7s. That work will be completed on or about June 1st. Once it is completed, we will review each of those other aircraft and return those aircraft that are within their operational life limit to the fleet and stand down other aviation assets like helicopters that are more expensive to operate.

One of the other things we found this year is that as a consequence of the conflict over the aging fixed-wing air tanker fleet, our helicopter contractors are beginning to adjust their equipment and technologies to improve the efficiencies or large heli-tankers and type 1 helicopters such that through new technological developments they have increased their range and effectiveness.

So we are pretty confident, actually I should say we are very confident that however the review of the remaining fixed-wing air tankers turns out, we will field an adequate aerial operation to continue the rate of success that we have enjoyed so far.

Mr. Walden. Ms. Watson, do you have any comment on that?

Ms. Watson. No, I don't really have anything to add because we work very closely with the Forest Service on air tankers.

Mr. Walden. All right. Thank you very much.

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Mr. Walden. Well, a follow-on to Mr. Rey and Ms. Watson would be to make the suggestion that you have a single point of contact in each agency to look at collaborative opportunities, and it sounds, in part, you are already doing that, but maybe that is another idea to put in the mix.

I know when I travel in the mountainous regions in my district, which are not insignificant, representing Clear Creek, and Grand, and Eagle and Summit, as well as Gilpin Counties--half the ski areas, for example, in Colorado are in my district--in those subdivisions that are now tucked away in a lot of these mountain areas, there is immense interest in those groups moving ahead with the kind of support that might be available to them. And anything we can do to continue and encourage that, I would urge you to take a look at. I know it is a part of collaborations, and what we are talking about is working with groups that have the expertise like the Wilderness Society, but this is another form of collaboration as well.

Thank you, and I look forward to working with you on this important issue as it unfolds.

Mr. Walden. Thank you. I want to thank our panel for not only your work within the agencies, I know it is difficult, but you are making great progress, but also for your work with this committee, and we look forward to continuing this conversation on this and other issues affecting the health of our forests and range lands. We have a lot of work to do, we are doing a lot of work, but there is obviously more. So thank you very much.

We will now move on to our third panel and hopefully at least get the testimony from our panelists before they call us for votes. Our third panel, we have James Cummins, Executive Director of the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation; Lena Tucker, Society of American Foresters from the great State of Oregon; and Lisa Dale Gregory from The Wilderness Society.

Let us go ahead and at least start on testimony. If you can go ahead and take your seats, we will start with Mr. Cummins.

Welcome. That bell you heard, that terrible buzzing sound, means we are going to have to go for votes. Perhaps we can get through at least your testimony, if not, perhaps, one other.

Go ahead.

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Mr. Walden. Thank you. I want to commend you on your testimony. Our staff has reviewed it in depth, and I have seen it and intend to read it more carefully on the flight to Oregon tonight, but it is very thorough and very helpful. You caught some things that, frankly, we wish we would have caught. I have to tell you, though, that I spent my freshman term on the Ag Committee. We had the Forest Service before us. That was in 1999. The General Accounting Office came in and made a presentation about the accounting system failures within the Forest Service, and I will always remember they said, ``It is so bad we couldn't finish the project,'' and that it is as if Region 6 had a specialized piece of John Deere equipment, and they loaned it to Region 2. Region 2 counted it once, and Region 6 counted it twice.

I mean, it was one of those, just a mess. And I remember saying, ``Is anybody held accountable?'' when the chief of the Forest Service, then chief--I think it was Mike Dombeck was there--``Anybody held accountable?''

``Well--''

``Anybody been reprimanded?''

``No.''

``Anybody been fired?''

``No.'' And I had just come off five years on a community bank board where, you know, you are regulated, and I was on the Audit Committee a while, and it just astounded me that our books were in that bad of shape. They would take their receivables against their--it was like their payments against their receivables. It was like you took your checkbook and just sort of ran an average of how far you thought you were off and applied it to the whole thing. I mean, it was that--these are statements out of the GAO.

Since then, though, these agencies have brought in some of the best accounting minds on the planet, hopefully, and they have made a lot of progress. What you have identified indicates there is more to be done, but if you think what you found is bad--

Ms. Gregory. I can confirm that some of the problems still exist.

Mr. Walden.--you would still be looking for the first blank check, if you had started five or six years ago on this. So we appreciate the work you have done on it. You have raised some very valid points--some I have raised about how are we counting those acres treated? And I, also, recognize that part of a treatment regime may require multiple processes over years. Ms. Gregory. Absolutely.

Mr. Walden. But then we need to ID that and understand what we are counting and what we are not.

Ms. Gregory. That is exactly right.

Mr. Walden. So I appreciate that and the collaborative approach information is very helpful as well. I put together, after this Act was passed, as Lena can tell you, three community forums in each region in my district down in Medford, in Central Oregon, and then up in Eastern Oregon, to bring together, you know, the people who I thought would be, initially, at least putting this together--the agencies, the local Governments, and then had open public forums to tell them let us get after this. It is a really important tool you have been given to locally pull everybody in and try and write a plan that works and give the agencies some guidance. You live there, recreate there, let us try and get it right.

So, anyway, I appreciate your comments and, obviously, those of our other two witnesses.

Mr. Cummins, as the House Resources Committee considers modernizing and updating the Endangered Species Act, which is somewhat off-topic, but not really, do you have any suggestions for us? As you know, there are some broad-based interests now in taking a look at how we can make it work better than it works today. You mentioned I think the posters outside there.

I think you need to turn your microphone on, though, so that the rest of the world can hear you.

Mr. Cummins. My accent is bad enough.

[Laughter.]

Mr. Cummins. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act has really kind of set the table, especially with Title V. And in terms of recommendations, you mentioned you were on the House Agriculture committee, in your time serving on that committee, there are a lot of different programs, Conservation Reserve, Wetlands Reserve, Grasslands Reserve. Those programs can be tweaked, and not a lot, to provide some pretty significant benefits to T&E species. So I would encourage you to work with
your colleagues on House Ag.

I would, also, encourage you to look at one problem that is not addressed that much are invasive species, and whether you are in the West or the Southeast or New England, we have a tremendous amount of problems looking at incentives and especially through the tax code, utilizing tax credits, tax credits that can be transferred from one landowner to another. That way it doesn't penalize a small landowner. Those are different types of things that I think will all certainly aid in recovery and really help strengthen and update the Endangered Species Act.

Mr. Walden. I appreciate that, and I appreciate your reference to the invasive species. A number of us on this committee, in working with Senator Craig, passed some legislation. I was astounded to learn we are losing about 4,500 acres I think a day to invasive species, noxious weeds that are taking over our rangelands, and clogging our little streams. I mean, Purple Loosestrife is a beautiful little blooming plant until you realize it has choked every stream in your neighborhood and destroyed them. And so we have a lot of work to do there.

Mr. Cummins. Cogan grass is a very damaging invasive species that occurs in the Southern Coastal Plain, and it is really damaging a lot of our forest lands, either Louisiana Pacific, International Paper, et cetera. So we are seeing a lot of that in the South.

Mr. Walden. As you know, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act caps its provisions after we have treated 20 million acres. There are estimates of up to 190 million acres of Federal forest lands that need some sort of restorative work or subject to catastrophic fire or disease or whatever. I would just be curious, in the little time I have left here, what you all think about that limit and whether, as we move forward, that is something we should consider expanding.

Is there any scientific reason to keep a lid on it at 20 million acres, when most will tell you it is significantly more than that?

Mr. Cummins?

Mr. Cummins. Well, if I have cancer, I want all of it gone, and I think we need to work toward treating the acres that need treating no matter what the cap is, and I don't think we should restrict ourselves either based on a certain acreage limit. Let us restrict ourselves based on the limit of the problem.

Mr. Walden. Ms. Tucker?

Ms. Tucker. I think it is hard to arbitrarily set a limit on what you should treat. Really, we should look at priorities, and what we are doing now is prioritizing those high-risk areas next to the urban interface, and from there we work out into areas that strategically make sense to treat for the fuels load out there. It is kind of like how do you set the fuel break around the community? Is it a quarter of a mile, is it a half a mile?

Mr. Walden. Right.

Ms. Tucker. In the face of the Biscuit fire, where fire managers out there saw it move nine miles in one day, you know, a quarter of a mile might not cut it for a fuel break or as to how far you go out there, so you just have to look at the fuel loading, the terrain, the weather, what is happening in a specific area and make a site-specific plan for it.

Mr. Walden. It sounds like that wouldn't even be a fire pause let alone a fire break.

Ms. Gregory, what is your view on that?

Ms. Gregory. Before we go beyond 200 million acres, I think we--

Mr. Walden. It is 20 million.

Ms. Gregory. Sorry--20 million.

Mr. Walden. If you would like to limit it at 200, we might cut a deal right here and now.

Ms. Gregory. Before the limits of the act, as it exists, I think we need to focus more of the money into the wildland-urban interface by getting that money to communities as they need protection. We are so far from meeting those goals, the existing goals, that I think it is a difficult proposition to consider a real one.

Mr. Walden. But would the fact that a true collaborative approach takes time--

Ms. Gregory. Yes.

Mr. Walden. I mean, I would hate to bump up against it. We are going to wait for money no matter what, I think, in this process. There is never enough no matter what program you are talking about. Certainly, this is expensive, but saves us long term. I guess that is why I am starting to think forward saying, you know, it wouldn't take us that long to figure out 20 million acres, four or five years, maybe, and collaborative approaches and appeals can take that.

Ms. Gregory. Well, as Ms. Tucker suggested, 600 communities she said have completed their Community Wildfire Protection Plans out of an estimated 11,000 communities at risk. So the need there is tremendous, and the Federal support in the form of funding isn't there, and it is certainly slowing some communities down. So I would recommend that the money go toward those needs first.

Mr. Walden. So not lift the cap yet.

Ms. Gregory. Not yet, no.

Mr. Walden. All right. I have exceeded my time.

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Mr. Walden. Thank you. I appreciate your participation in it--

Mr. Tom Udall. I thank the witnesses on the third panel.

Mr. Walden.--and that of our witnesses as well, all of our witnesses. Obviously, the record will stay open in case any of the other Members who couldn't come back or stay with us all day have questions, and we appreciate your responses to those. We appreciate the research you all have done and your counsel and guidance in this.

I, also, want to recognize Richard Cook, who is with us today. He is a Fellow from the U.S. Forest Service helping out the Committee. This is his first hearing, so we appreciate his help.

And it was, also, Megan's first hearing, I am told, for the Minority, and we appreciate the great job she did.

So thanks for being here. We appreciate all of the input. We have a lot of work to do, and we will, in this Committee, I intend to run a fairly aggressive operation to deal with these problems. That is our job and our responsibility, and I think together we can continue to find good solutions that will work for our forests and our future.

With that, the Subcommittee is adjourned.

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