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Public Statements

Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2007

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. CRAIG. Madam President, while I know that on the floor of the Senate this afternoon SCHIP, or the State Children's Health Insurance Program, is the topic of the moment, something else is near conclusion across America at this time that I thought it would be appropriate for me to speak to. I am speaking of the 2007 fire season. Of course, we--you and I--have been riveted to our television sets over the last several weeks as we literally watched the Los Angeles basin burn. Well, while the smoke is starting to clear in California and the losses are being assessed, I thought it would be time to come and speak to one of the worst fire seasons America has experienced in decades. First, in doing so, I must say--and we have all watched it--thank you to the literally thousands of courageous firefighters, men and women out on the line every day, facing almost impossible odds. We saw it in California. We saw it in my State of Idaho. We saw it across America this year, during that wildfire season period, where flames were as high as buildings, and men and women were scurrying to stop them and to protect both habitat and watershed and homes. They were putting themselves at risk. So I say to all of those marvelous firefighters who stood in harm's way throughout the early summer, summer and fall, and now into the late fall in California, thank you. Thank you for the phenomenal work you do, the selflessness you put yourselves into, on behalf of America, on behalf of people's property, on behalf of our natural resources.

In California as we speak, 14 people lost their lives, 2,100 homes were destroyed as that week-long blaze roared across the greater Los Angeles basin. Over 809 square miles of land was charred, and now, about the time the fires are to die down, we hear rumors that the Santa Ana winds are expected to pick up again and we could possibly find ourselves back in flames in California.

The 2007 fire season: 77,000 fires. Stop and think about that; 77,000 fires, 9.2 million acres of land, and as I have said California may continue to burn.

In my home State of Idaho, we went through one of the worst fire seasons we have ever experienced. Of that 77,000 fires I talked about, 1,775 of them were in the State of Idaho. Of the 9.2 million acres of land charred that I talked about, over 2.2 million acres of that, nearly 25 percent of the whole burn, occurred in my State of Idaho.

Thankfully, in Idaho, no great structures were lost because it happened to be out in the back country or on our foothill grazing land. Finally, as the snow began to fall in the high country of my great State a few weeks ago, the fires were put out because some of those fires were simply impossible to corral and to put out by man's efforts.

So here is an interesting statistic. This chart shows us the phenomenal escalation and the cost of firefighting at the Federal level and what has transpired. In 2005, nearly $1.6 billion was spent. Let me show you what happened this year. Here is what happened this year. So we go from $1.6 billion, and let's go to $1.87 billion. Those are the figures we are talking about now, and that doesn't even include California. So we will probably hit well over the $2 billion price tag in fighting America's fires this year, and that, in itself, is phenomenal, a phenomenal cost.

So let's remember it: 77 million, 1,000 fires, 9.2 million acres burned, and now we are bumping up over $2 billion worth of tax dollars spent in protecting America's marvelous wildlands and in protecting properties and all of that.

Let me give an example of what happened in Idaho, where 25 percent of that acreage burned. On one fire alone, in size as big as the Los Angeles fires--we called it the Murphy Complex fires. Well, there were 50,000 AUMs--or animal unit months--of grazing, because the public lands in Idaho are very valuable for grazing. Six ranchers were 100 percent burned out. Seventeen others were partially burned. Now that the fire is over, now that the fall has come and we have had a few rainstorms and things have settled down, this is Federal land, what do we do?

Here is what we are doing, because the cost is not over. The figure I have given you of nearly $2 billion, that is to put out the fires. Now, what are you going to do with the land? You start rehabilitating the land. You start trying to stop it from eroding and doing all of that. We are going to spend $10 million in 2007, and $22 million is already requested for the next 3 years. That is for one fire in Idaho, estimated at 128,000 acres to be rehabbed, and currently 66,000 have been rehabbed. I flew over that fire. It is very hard to understand what 600 square miles of fire looks like. I was in a military helicopter. I flew for 35 minutes and never saw unburned land. That is the expanse of the size of the fires, and that fire was a little smaller than the collective size of the Los Angeles, or the greater California fires.

So it is phenomenally important that we put these fires into context and understand what they are all about. Some of you watched on national television as the great ski resort, Sun Valley, near Ketchum, ID, nearly burned this year. We spent well over $150 million saving the community of Ketchum and saving the great Sun Valley Ski Resort from the Castle Rock fire. I was up there two different days on that fire. As the community came around and helped and tried to protect themselves and as our Government poured in resources in a class one fire, there was a great lady up there who was the fire boss. They brought her out of California. She was fearless in her effort to stop that fire, and she did so very successfully.

There are a lot of other stories to be told. The Salmon River, the great ``river of no return'' in Idaho, one of the No. 1 whitewater rafting rivers in the world, shut down 27 days this summer because of the smoke and risk of fire. Millions of dollars from recreation were lost in my State from fire or the risk of fire. Oh, yes, there were millions lost in resources, but when you live off the economy of tourism and recreation, fire becomes a very real problem. I don't think we have drawn a bottom line yet to determine the losses in Idaho. But I will tell you they literally are in the millions of dollars. Sun Valley itself had to cancel a great event it has every Labor Day called Wagon Days; they had to cancel altogether, telling people not to come, and tens of thousands of people did not come and spend their money. That community lost millions as a result.

When you see a fire being fought and you know there are millions of dollars being spent to put it out, that is one phase of the great cost of fires in America. As you know, in California, with 2,100 homes burned, many of those homes will be rebuilt, the communities will be rebuilt, to the tune of well over a billion dollars. Someone is going to pay for that--State money, insurance money, private money--a tremendous expense. In many of the areas of the State of Idaho, in that 2.2 million acres that burned, campgrounds will not be able to be used for several years; trail heads will be canceled because it is charred, it is gone; the wildlife habitat, the watershed--all of that, as a result of the great ineffective management of public lands, has been wiped out.

The reason I am telling you all of this is because there is a very important message that has to be brought into context as we look at America burning--and America burns. Last year, it was nearly 10 million acres; this year, it is 9-some-odd million acres. We are burning unprecedented acres in our Nation and somebody ought to ask why. Why is it greater today than it has been in decades?

There are reasons, I believe, and in the next few minutes I will try to explain those to you because not only is our attitude about fire different, our attitude about how we manage our public lands and reduce the overall fuel loads that feed these fires is out there; and the Senator who is chairing at the moment, concluded the drafting and markup of a climate change bill. Our climate has changed. We are, in some areas, getting hotter and in some areas getting drier. But the management of the lands in response to the change of the climate isn't there, or we are not giving the management agencies the resources to change management practices to reflect the kinds of changes that are going on in our public lands.

So, for Idaho, not only was the loss real this summer in millions of acres of beautiful wildlands, but it is now wildlife habitat that is gone; it is watershed that, in the wet season, could come tumbling down and bring sediment to our streams and damage fisheries, and much of the recreation that was there is gone, potentially, for years to come.

As I mentioned a few moments ago, the seeding, the stabilization, all of the things that have to go on in the urban watersheds to protect them and bring water quality back--all of that is going to be the additional expenses of the Forest Service and BLM and many of our management agencies that have the responsibility over those lands.

The firefighters are gone from Idaho. The smoke is gone and the skies are clear once again. At the same time, the damage is real, and the damage will be there for years to come.

The skies will clear in California one of these days, but in California, the wet season will come. As we watched 2,100 homes burn, now we will watch the land grow wet and begin to slide, because there is no vegetation on it to hold it and protect it and to save it from the kind of slippage to which that region of the country is very prone.

The reason I mentioned Senator Lieberman is because he is on the floor today, leading a charge on climate change. Here is another aspect of what we have done this year, but nobody registers it and few account for it. On average, 6 tons of CO2 are released for every acre burned in the United States. Up to 100 tons of CO2 per acre can be released. Now, last year alone--we have not calculated this year yet--10 million acres of forest lands burned. By conservative estimates, that means 60 million tons of CO2 --carbon--was spewed into the atmosphere, not to mention greenhouse gases and air pollutants as a product of our fires.

Can we do something about it? Should we do something about it? We are proposing changing our whole energy structure to try to effect climate change and reduce our greenhouse gases, but few are focused on our public lands and our policies of managing them and what results from that when they burn.

Here is an interesting fact. When I talk about the 60 million tons of CO

2 spewed into the atmosphere, that is roughly equivalent--understand this figure--to taking 12 million vehicles off the roads for 1 year; in other words, turning off their motors, stopping their pollution, 12 million vehicles for 1 year. That is equivalent to about half the automobile fleet in California. That is a pretty significant picture.

One of the things our forests do so very well when they are young and youthful, and when the matrix of our forests old and new are different in their changes, they do something that only a green-growing plant can do: sequester carbon, take it from the atmosphere. When they burn, it releases carbon back into the atmosphere. Our management practices ought to be to keep our forests as young and vibrant and alive as they can be, so they become a tool, an asset, in climate change, to pull the carbon out of the atmosphere that man produces and store it in trees. The great secret that lots of people who don't understand our forests do not understand is they are the greatest captor and storer of carbon in a forest. When they burn and when you see smoke on the horizon, it is just that--the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

Let me conclude by saying what I think is critically important for our future. Active management of our forests, recognizing not only their contribution to our great Nation, as it relates to all they bring in water quality and wildlife habitat and the producing of fiber to build homes, is what keeps a forest healthy. To simply lock them up and watch them and watch Mother Nature move in with her bugs and kill them and burn them and do what happened this year is, in itself, a statement of mismanagement.

This year, and last year, we saw record examples of mismanagement: 10 million acres last year, 9.2 million acres this year, and billions of dollars of tax money spent and thousands of homes lost. Our public resource agencies spend more time protecting homes nowadays than the resource itself. We sit idly by while the courts are in suit to keep us out of our forests so we cannot manage them to clean them up, to reduce the fuel loads, to adhere to the laws that have been passed, such as Healthy Forests and others.

I will be back to talk more about this in detail in the coming months. We are now off the chart. We are now literally, in spending, off the chart. This is only phase I. This is fighting fires, trying to put out fires. This is trying to protect habitat or to protect homes. This has nothing to do with the rehabilitation and the seeding and management that may come afterwards or all of the dollars that have been lost in California because business would not be conducted, or all of the dollars lost in Idaho and other States because people could not come there to enjoy it and recreate.

There are a lot of other consequences, let alone the phenomenal bleeding in the atmosphere of carbon and greenhouse gases, that come from a wildfire season. America burned this year. The 2007 fire season was one of the worst we have had in decades. This is part of the story of what it was all about. There is more to be told. It must be told, and Congress should act in concert with climate change and everything else to make sure that part of what we do sequesters our carbon, keeps our forests healthy, young, and vibrant as a part of the total picture of a great Nation that manages a great resource instead of simply watching it burn.


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