Walden Lays Out Western Challenges, Urges Rapid Action On County Payments
Congressman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) today testified in front of the House Committee on Natural Resources, laying out the effect of federal land management policy on the West. The hearing was convened to gather testimony from experts on challenges facing western communities.
As chairman of the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health in the 109th Congress, Walden led the effort for responsible forest management following catastrophic events like forest fires. Today he told the committee, "Let us not defend a system that is so complicated that it takes three times longer to remove a burned, dead tree than to rebuild the Pentagon."
"Yes, the West is changing, not just because of changing demographics, but largely as a result of federal policies and judicial decisions which keep our forest and rangeland professionals from managing forests," Walden said. "Healthy communities, healthy forests and healthy rangelands go hand in hand. If we are to see broad and long-term stewardship success, Congress must step up to the plate and pass laws to allow for thoughtful, quick, and active stewardship of our federal lands."
Walden also requested that Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) give the "earliest possible consideration" to H.R. 17, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (county payments). Walden and Congressman Peter DeFazio sent a letter to Chairman Rahall on January 26, asking that the committee consider H.R. 17 as quickly as possible. The Natural Resources Committee is one of two House committees with jurisdiction over the legislation.
"Before I get into my prepared remarks, I would be remiss if I didn't make the top of the agenda the need to ask for your earliest consideration on a hearing and action on H.R. 17 of which you (Chairman Rahall) are a sponsor, which you were last year," Walden told the committee today. "Counties in much of the West are suffering dramatic cuts in their budgets right now, teachers are being given pink slips, and libraries are going to close in the most populous county in my district in April if we don't act in this Congress to keep a promise that has been made to these counties since Theodore Roosevelt basically created the forest reserves 100 years ago. So I would encourage earliest possible consideration in this committee as we did in 2005 to move that legislation forward."
Walden's submitted testimony is below:
Chairman Rahall, Mr. Young and Members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify here today on The Evolving West - a subject involving vast and innumerable issues. Hopefully today I can shed some light on at least a few of them.
The fact that the West is changing is not a new revelation. Changing technologies, economies, and demographics have always affected the social, political and even natural landscape. In some cases these changes are beneficial to the environment and the human condition; in some cases they're not. On the "not" side, for example, as federal grazing allotments disappear due to increased litigation and regulation, many ranchers find that they don't have enough of their own private, base property to allow them to run a herd of sufficient size to remain profitable. The result is that many ranchers have to find other sources of revenue, often involving the subdivision and sale of their land. This revenue stream is obviously not sustainable in the long run, affecting the economics of local communities, but is also a major contributor to the loss of open space and the broad undeveloped vistas so emblematic of the western landscape.
In the West - my State of Oregon and the Second Congressional District, in particular - one of the most obvious and overriding influences is land ownership. In my district, over 50% of the land base is owned by the federal government. In other words, politicians and federal employees in Washington, D.C. have an influence over my constituents unimaginable to most in the East. As laws and regulations are churned out from within the beltway, westerners feel their impact most intensely, particularly those concerning the management of federal lands. I'd like to name just a few of the laws which our federal land management agencies and local communities must deal with:
- The Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974;
- The National Forest Management Act of 1976;
- The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976;
- The Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Research Act of 1978;
- The Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978;
- The Wilderness Act of 1964;
- The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969;
- The Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972;
- The Endangered Species Act of 1973;
- The Clean Water Act of 1977.
Individually each of these laws provides important environmental safeguards, but collectively they intertwine and overlap in often contradictory ways that make it nearly impossible for federal land managers, local elected officials, partnership groups, and private citizens to navigate---even simple decisions are vulnerable to lawsuits on procedural grounds. The result is legal gridlock.
In a speech he delivered in Salt Lake City 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the purpose of the forest reserves, public lands and the need for local support to ensure this new federal policy would work. Let me share with you his words from that day:
"Almost every industry depends in some more or less vital way upon the preservation of the forests; and while citizens die, the government and the nation do not die, and we are bound in dealing with the forests to exercise the foresight necessary to use them now, but to use them in such a way as will also keep them for those who are to come after us.
The first great object of the forest reserves is, of course, the first great object of the whole land policy of the United States --the creation of homes, the favoring of the home-maker. That is why we wish to provide for the home-makers of the present and the future the steady and continuous supply of timber, grass and above all, of water. That is the object of the forest reserves, and that is why I bespeak your cordial cooperation in their preservation.
Remember you must realize, what I thoroughly realize, that however wise a policy may be it can be enforced only if the people of the States believe in it. We can enforce the provisions of the forest reserve law or of any other law only so far as the best sentiment of the community or the State will permit that enforcement. Therefore it lies primarily not with the people of Washington, but with you, yourselves, to see that such polices are supported as will redound to the benefit of the home-makers and therefore the sure and stated building up of the State as a whole."
In 1986 the national forests in my district produced a timber sale program of 2.226 billion board feet at a value of about $213 million, a quarter of which, $53 million, went to the local counties for schools and roads. Twenty years later, in 2006, the timber sale volume was a mere 198 million board feet worth revenues of $17 million, less than 10 % the 1986 levels. The loss of family wages and the impacts on many local economies and their basic community infrastructure has been dramatic. For example, unemployment in Grant County, Oregon is currently 9.8%. There are areas in my district which are doing just fine but many others continue to feel the stinging loss of family wage jobs and have no economic diversification in reach.
The collapse of the timber sale program and the resulting job losses weren't restricted just to my district but were felt across the country in nearly all counties near national forests, as can be seen in the first chart I have here: annual nationwide federal land harvest averaged around 11 billion board feet for decades, dropping to below 2 billion board feet in the 1990's.
As less wood from national forests became available did Americans consume less wood? No. As we can see on the second chart, this need for wood was responded to by increasing imports to record levels, largely from countries with poor environmental policies and safeguards. Were job losses in rural America necessary? Is it now further necessary for us to further ship our jobs overseas and rely on foreign natural resources? Let's look at the data.
As you can see on the third chart, long before 1986, national forest growth had begun to exceed harvest, beginning in the 1930's. In fact, on the fourth chart it is evident that not only has growth exceeded harvest but mortality has exceeded harvest as well. Many more trees are dying on our national forests than are being harvested. The rest of the story, unless you've been a hermit for the last few years, was not just predictable but inevitable.
On the fifth chart you can see that the explosive increase in forest fuels, combined with drought, has resulted in a huge increase in the number and size of catastrophic wildfires - to a record breaking 10 million acres last year.
In the words and actions of President Teddy Roosevelt we can still hear the echo of balance and multiple use; of providing for the needs of that day, and for the needs of the future.
Teddy Roosevelt was many things, but principal among them he was a man of action. And if he were to join us today, I hardly believe he would be pleased to know that 190 million acres of the federal forest reserves are subject to catastrophic wildfire, disease and bug infestation.
This Rough Rider of a President would throw a fit if he knew we were losing more than 4,500 acres a day to the spread of noxious weeds.
The man who charged up San Juan Hill would never stand for the gridlock that has overtaken the ability of the educated and trained public land management professionals to effectively steward our natural resources and special places. And neither should we.
Let us not defend a system that allows the symphony of fiddlers to tie us up in court for years while bugs devour our forests and fires ravage our communities.
Let us not defend a system that is so complicated that it takes three times longer to remove a burned, dead tree than to rebuild the Pentagon.
And let us not believe that we lack the power to change things.
Gridlock; litigation; divisiveness; process predicament; and polarization---these are words and phrases that describe public lands issues today.
Not only do we have the power to affect change, but also we have the solemn responsibility to identify what is wrong, engage the public in finding solutions and then take the action necessary to bring about a better policy.
Too often my colleagues in Congress blame agencies and the courts for what we see as wrong. And yet, we are the writers of the laws. We are the ones empowered to solve problems. And the time has come for us to do the heavy lifting.
There are many factors that have contributed to the creation of this state of affairs, such as:
--An inconsistent and often contradictory "crazy quilt" of laws and regulations, as former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas aptly put it;
--An increasingly urban population that in the East is far removed from forest realities;
--A well-funded environmental political industry that aggressively opposes active forest management;
--And an indecisive, if not bi-polar, Congress.
Yes, the West is changing, not just because of changing demographics, but largely as a result of federal policies and judicial decisions which keep our forest and rangeland professionals from managing forests. Healthy communities, healthy forests and healthy rangelands go hand in hand. If we are to see broad and long-term stewardship success, Congress must step up to the plate and pass laws to allow for thoughtful, quick, and active stewardship of our federal lands.
In my lifetime, I've seen much change in the West, but there has also been much that has remained constant; such as a general sense of individual responsibility and independence, a neighborly kindness, a strong work ethic, and a genuine appreciation and respect for the natural environment. These may be broad generalities, but I think they are mostly accurate and help to define the West not as just a segment of the country but also as a unique place with its own sense of character and beauty.
As your Committee, and the rest of us in Washington, discuss issues and pass laws that affect the West, may we always be mindful that our actions often weaken the basic strengths that make the West uniquely the West.
Thank you for your time.
Congressman Walden represents 20 counties in central, southern and eastern Oregon.