Monday, August 31, 2015

In light of brutal fire season, Congress needs to act to protect National Forests, writers say

This year's brutal fire season—with more than seven million acres burning, including nearly one million acres of National Forests—should be a concern to everyone, regardless of where you live, writes Marshall Matz, who specializes in agriculture issues at OFW Law, and Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, for Agri-Pulse.

"The 153 National Forests—covering 191 million acres in 40 states—were originally set aside to secure water flows, provide forage for livestock and provide needed timber for our forest products industry," Matz and Imbergamo write. "That mission—since added to and modified—has evolved but not fundamentally changed. With heavy fuel loads, a warming and drying climate and a dysfunctional system for funding fire suppression, however, it's not clear the National Forests will be able to provide these public benefits for much longer."

"The Obama administration rightly points out that the current system for funding wildfire suppression is broken—and just announced plans to begin another round of 'fire borrowing'—where funds Congress appropriates for land management are redirected to pay for the firefighters, air tankers and other material needed to try to stop the megafires burning in California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington, among other states," Matz and Imbergamo write. "The fires are having a devastating economic impact on local communities and Indian tribes." (U.S. Department of Agriculture map)

Agriculture Commissioner Tom Vilsack has said that in another decade fire suppression will consume two-thirds of the Forest Service's discretionary budget, up from a decade ago when it was 16 percent of the budget, Matz and Imbergamo write. That means Congress needs to step up "and start treating fire suppression costs like the emergencies they are—and fast."

In July the House passed a bi-partisan bill "which would speed up needed forest management on the National Forests," Matz and Imbergamo write. The bill "provides streamlined NEPA compliance mechanisms for projects designed by collaboration between key stakeholders. It also encourages creation of needed wildlife habitat, and provides alternative funding mechanisms for management projects—many of which focus on reducing the threat of catastrophic fires."

"Just before the bill came to the floor, a provision was added that would give the Forest Service access to emergency funds after the 10-year average in suppression costs had been expended," Matz and Imbergamo write. "A similar provision was included in the Senate Interior bill, which cleared committee but has yet to come to the floor. Just before the Senate left for August recess, a critical group of 11 Senators expressed commitment to addressing the fire funding problem."

"Finally, current law doesn't allow the Forest Service to use receipts generated from the removal of timber and biomass to pay for needed analysis on future projects," Matz and Imbergamo write. "In short, any legislation to address the fire funding crisis also has to address the forest management crisis. There is a hard core of activists who will use every weapon at hand to delay and disrupt needed management, and Congress needs to send an unmistakable message: management of our forests can't wait. National Forests are not National Parks. They have different statutory purposes, and the Congress should not allow the statutes to be amended through litigation." (Read more)

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