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Public Statements

Managing Public Lands

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

MANAGING PUBLIC LANDS -- (House of Representatives - October 24, 2007)


Mr. WALDEN of Oregon. Thank you, Mr. Bishop. I appreciate your work on the issues we have worked on in the past.

The California fires are tragic in what is happening to the people who live there, the loss of life, the loss of habitat, the pollution that is going into the air. I have been told that the California wildfires have burned the equivalent of 10 times the square mileage of the District of Columbia. Ten times the size of the District of Columbia has gone up in smoke in California so far.

In my district in Oregon this year, 11 times the size of the District of Columbia has gone up in fire. Now fortunately we have not seen the loss of life and we haven't seen the loss of homes. But what we have seen is the loss of land for grazing and habitat and clean water as our watersheds have gone up in smoke.

This picture here I brought down to the floor for my colleagues to see. It is of two young children who are from Harney County, Oregon. This is the Egley fire which burned in my district 140,000 acres; 140,000 acres, the Egley fire burned in Harney County. America's forest lands going up in smoke.

There are 192 million acres of national forest system lands. According to the Forest Service, 52 million of those acres are at high risk to catastrophic wildfires. Twelve million acres in Oregon are considered high risk; 26 million acres, or just under the size of the State of Kentucky, are at risk to insect infestation.

You have to understand that our forests are not static. They continue to grow and suffer bug infestation, drought devastation, and ultimately fire. The total net national forest growth in the United States is currently about 20 billion board feet a year. Total mortality is about 10 billion board feet. So our forests are expanding at 20 billion board feet a year, America's federally owned forests, and 10 billion board feet die. We harvest less than 2 billion board feet.

That is part of our topic today, the lack of active management in our Federal forests. I want to show you what happens on a watershed. This is up in northeastern Oregon. In 1989, the Tanner Gulch fire wiped out the spring Chinook salmon run in Oregon's Upper Grand Ronde River. This used to be habitat for salmon. There was a creek that ran along here. Unfortunately, it is just mud and sludge and debris and blackened trees and ashen slopes.

Now in an extreme fire, scientists tell us that the most catastrophic fire that occurs in our forests emits about 100 tons of carbon and greenhouse gases. For those concerned about trying to do something about carbon emissions in our atmosphere and trying to reduce other pollutants in our atmosphere, we need to do something to manage our forests better to prevent these catastrophic fires. That is on the extreme, the 100 tons per acre.

A healthy green forest will sequester between 4 and 6 tons of carbon per acre. So these are the choices we are facing: How do you manage the forests for better forest health, for reduced fire and reduced fire intensity, and get them back into balance with nature. My colleague from Utah said what do you do about that.

Well, a few years ago we passed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. It was bipartisan in its nature and scope. It was designed to allow Federal agencies, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, to more rapidly, while still involving the public, go in and do the kind of thinning and debris removal to address this issue of the overgrown forests you heard me mention, the 20 billion board feet a year that grows in our forests and the 10 billion that dies, so we can go in, especially in the wildland-urban interface, near communities where homes are, the kind of homes we see burning today, although they are not necessarily in a Federal forest, but it is a similar concept. So to be able to go in quickly and have scientifically proven plans, based on community wildfire plans, in many cases, to go in and remove that debris and reduce that fire hazard.

That legislation which I coauthored with former Representative Scott McInnis from Colorado and Senator Feinstein and Senator Wyden were both very much involved, has worked in many cases, especially the community wildfire planning piece because that piece brought diverse groups together, environmentalists, community leaders, firefighters. We have a group here from Bend who have been on the forefront of this very effort, firefighters from my own district. They came together and developed plans on how do we safeguard the communities and the things we really want to protect, our watersheds and habitat. They came together, and now they can even more quickly implement those community wildfire plans.

The problem we face in this Congress is virtually every Member of the leadership of this Congress voted ``no'' on the final conference report that passed the Senate unanimously, and that includes the Speaker, majority leader, the caucus chairman, the Resources Committee chairman, the subcommittee chairman, and the Rules Committee chairwoman all voted against the Healthy Forest Restoration Act conference report. This is what we worked out with the Senate. It passed and became law. We now have these community wildfire plans in place. We need to continue to work and expand them elsewhere. It is so important.

So far this year in America's forests and grasslands on Federal land, more than 8 million acres have burned. We are setting records. This is down a little bit from last year, but over the last few years, we are at record levels. American taxpayers have spent $1.22 billion fighting fires, and that is before these awful fires in California have broken out. So it is very expensive when we don't manage properly and have fires break out.

Let me tell you what has happened. In my district, it is 70,000 square miles of eastern Oregon. It is beautiful. We have nine national forests there. We have national grasslands. We have wilderness areas. We have Crater Lake National Park and high desert plateaus, wheat land, and we have had all these fires. They have destroyed communities and many homes in the past. They have inflicted death. They have burned, and it takes years to recover. In fact, we have cattle ranchers in central and eastern Oregon who may be off their allotments for 2 years because it will take that long for the range to recover from fires that, frankly, shouldn't have gotten so out of hand if we had done the right management to begin with.

In the meantime, the infrastructure that needs to be there for our scientists and professional forest managers to conduct this forest thinning is going away because, you see, the allowable harvest of timber off Federal land has declined in my part of the world by 80 percent, 80 percent reduction. And with it, the timber receipts to these communities.

So this chart going back to 1976 shows the various timber receipt levels. And you get out here, and you see there is virtually no revenue coming off our Federal land, revenue that used to help pay for restoration work, that used to help pay for conservation efforts, that used to help pay for parks and other things, the activities people like to do when they recreate. And, most importantly, revenues that used to be shared with the local counties to fund their schools and their roads.

In the largest county in my district, Jackson County, this year because timber receipts are virtually eliminated, and because the county replacement program was stalled in its reauthorization, which is fundamentally flawed in my opinion, they had to close all the libraries. This is not some thousand-person county. This is largest populated county in my district. Every library had to close.

Another county down on the south Oregon coast, they were looking at declaring bankruptcy. Another was going to have to lay off all their sheriff's deputies except those mandated by State law to run the jail to provide security because this Congress hasn't passed the Secure Rural Schools Reauthorization. I would hope that could be brought to the floor and passed so that those of us in the West, and the gentleman from Utah (Mr. Bishop) has a wonderful map showing Federal land ownership, but where most of the Federal lands are in the West, my district is over half Federal land. And it is important.

When Teddy Roosevelt created the national forest reserves in 1905, he said it needs to be a partnership with the communities in the management of these lands and in the revenues that are shared, and these lands need to be properly managed. I think he would roll over in his grave today if he knew what had happened in terms of the disassociation with the communities, in terms of the bug-infested nature of our forests, the droughts that have occurred that have left them distressed, and the disease that has come in, and then how they burn. And then we leave them.

In the last Congress, I wrote, and many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including the gentleman from Washington (Mr. Baird), a Democrat, former Sierra Club chapter president, helped me write the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act.

So we, like private forest landowners and State forest landowners and county forest landowners and others, could get in right after a fire, take out where appropriate, where environmentally appropriate, in sensitive ways the dead trees that still have value, create the jobs, recover the wood, and replant sooner. We passed it in this House, big bipartisan margin to pass it. It went up on the rocks in the great graveyard we call the Senate, where all good ideas go to founder and die, and it did.

The fires in California, fires in my district, the fact that forests continue to grow exponentially, global climate change means they're going to be more under threat from higher temperature and, therefore, more drought and more bug infestation, more disease and more fire. This Congress, this country needs to adopt new policies.

Mr. BISHOP of Utah. I appreciate the gentleman from Oregon who's been a leader in trying to make sure that we have a healthy forest environment, and it means that we have to change some of the policies that we've had in the past, and I appreciate his leadership in those areas. I would like him to address just maybe one element.

Because of mistakes, I think, that we have made in the past on how we have decided to handle the forests in the future, those counties, those areas where citizens live next to the forest and where the forest becomes an integral part of their lifestyle, are facing a huge and significant problem, and especially their kids in secure rural schools. I wonder if the gentleman for just one second would take a moment to explain what we should be doing right now with relationship to secure rural schools, forest area schools.

Mr. WALDEN of Oregon. Well, we need to pass the legislation that's just come out of the Natural Resources Committee that would reauthorize the program that shared receipts or made up for the receipts that no longer are being generated with the county roads and schools. That legislation, and you are the ranking member on the subcommittee, worked very hard to make sure it's properly crafted, would provide for replacement revenue because, you see, that partnership shouldn't be broken, that promise shouldn't be shattered.

Communities where there are Federal lands, especially timbered communities, that have no real other ability to have an economic base in some cases, and yet, and I diverge a little here, but yet are still responsible when somebody's lost. Who's out there doing the recovery? The sheriff, out of the county. We've seen that tragically in my district, in my State, with the Kim family that was lost in southern Oregon. Family went out for a drive, got snowed in on a road, and the father died, and I believe the child and mother survived after several days. A number of climbers on Mt. Hood fell to their death. Their bodies have yet to be recovered from last year.

I was down in central Oregon and southern Oregon where sheriffs are out in the forests dealing with organized crime elements that have moved in to grow marijuana in highly sophisticated, generally Mexican, drug trafficking organizations, highly armed, very sophisticated. It's our sheriffs that are going in and trying and their deputies to deal with these issues.

So these costs of recovery, of rescue, of dealing with law enforcement issues on Federal ground are borne in large measure by the counties. And yet when you stop doing productive work on our national forests and they continue to grow and die at the same time, you don't have the revenue; yet, you still have greater and greater demand, people moving in to the wild land urban interface.

So this Congress gave us a 1-year reprieve in the emergency supplemental this spring. We need to reauthorize the county payments program for another 5 years, at a minimum, and we need to keep the Federal Government's commitment. If we're not going to do that, then we need to. And we probably need to do this anyway, frankly, get in with a new strategy on how to manage forests.

Now, I'm told in Canada where bugs have wiped out the lodgepole pine, the Canadian Government has come in and said actively get in there, take out the dead trees and let's get new forests going quickly. And they are rapidly clearing out the dead trees and starting new forests.

Our alternative here appears to be let it burn, let it rot, and 100 years from now we'll come back and take a look. I don't think that's the kind of stewardship Teddy Roosevelt had in mind when he talked about the great forest reserves and their use for water, for agriculture, and wood for home building. If you go back and read his speeches when he was creating these reserves; he wanted this long-term look at management of this wonderful resource we have.

Mr. BISHOP of Utah. You have long been involved in bipartisan efforts to solve this problem for your constituents, especially with their schools. I wonder if you would just take a couple more minutes before we segue into the next speaker, next area, simply talking about what we practically can do for secure rural schools right now, as well as what we should probably ask our leadership to do that we should be practically doing right now in the long term for healthy forests in the future.

Mr. WALDEN of Oregon. Well, there are two things. One on the forest side. Let me take that first, and then I'll talk about county payments.

You're right. I always figured people sent us back here not because of our party label and we're only supposed to use that; they sent us back here to solve problems. And that's how I've tried to approach this, and that's why on the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, it was bipartisan when it passed this House, although the leadership in place today, from the Speaker all the way to the subcommittee chairman, opposed that bill, the bill that passed bipartisanly, unanimously in the Senate in its final form. They voted against it. But that's law and that's worked.

We need to pass a version similar to the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act so that we can go in and clean up after these fires and use the burned, dead trees while they still have value; create jobs in our community. Then we won't need these Federal payments after all if we better manage the forests. We need to increase the allowable cut in our forests so that we can generate jobs and so that we can harvest wood here legally for our uses rather than buy our wood products manufactured overseas from illegally logged forests that are being wiped out in places like Burma and Malaysia and Indonesia and Russia and China where they may have laws on the books and they're completely unenforced.

So, as a result, we all gleefully go to the local furniture store and buy this furniture that's made from wood that was illegally harvested, while our forests burned, and we don't even recover the burned, dead trees. So we need to deal with that issue.

And we need to take into account some terrific research out of the forest service about the change in temperature that's occurring and how the forests are going to move north, but it will take them 10,000 years to catch up with the temperature that should change in about 100 years, if all their data is correct, and I know some of that still needs to be worked out.

So, finally, on the issue of county payments, first I think the first day of this session my colleague PETER DEFAZIO, a Democrat from Oregon, and I, as we did the prior session, introduced legislation with you and others to reauthorize the county payments law. That partnership needs to be kept. That promise needs to be kept, regardless of who carries the gavels around here. And it's taken until just a week or so ago to get it out of the first committee. It still has an Ag Committee referral on it, and it's yet to come to this floor. We should be bringing that to the floor and voting it up and down and moving it to the Senate or they should be sending us a bill. But right now, it appears to be, I don't know, held up, and that's not good for our children. It's not good for our libraries, not good for our first responders. It's not good for our county roads.

These school districts in some States have to send their layout notices out in March to tell teachers whether or not they're going to have the money for the following year. As you know, this year that happened in some school districts.

Mr. BISHOP of Utah. I appreciate the comments from the gentleman from Oregon. I especially appreciate his comments about our bipartisan bill that has been referred out of Resources. The Speaker of the House does have the ability of helping to move that bill along and can change the referral process to bring this one to the floor. And how significant this is, with these particular counties for the so-called secure rural schools, schools that are impacted by our policies in the passed-over forestlands. We need to have that on the floor now, and it has a funding source. It can be moved right now. I think I would probably join you in asking the Speaker publicly to bring that bill to the floor, let us vote on it, let us move the process forward, get it over to the Senate so we can solve that problem.

Mr. WALDEN of Oregon. As the gentleman knows, the clock is running. Time is running out, not just on our Special Order tonight but on the school kids and the counties and the services that our citizens rely upon in these forested areas, because that funding stream we got that 1-year extension on is running out, as is the time in this Congress running out.

We'll be off 2 weeks after Thanksgiving, a week. We're going to be in for a day and a half or 2 days, couple of weeks in December. Then we're into January and maybe in 1 week there. You know, it's the way Congress works, but we're running out of time, and we shouldn't run out on the promise that this Congress should uphold to the school kids and the communities in America's rural counties.


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