Summary of Hearings on Public Lands (10-5-07)

  • September 24, 2007: Senate Full Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
    Hearing "To consider scientific assessments of the impacts of global climate change on wildfire activity in the United States"
  • August 2, 2007: House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands legislative hearing on H.R. 3094 and H.R. 2959, National Park Service Centennial Funding
  • June 28, 2007: House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands hearing on "Management by Exclusion: The Forest Service Use of Categorical Exclusions from NEPA."
  • June 26, 2007: Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Oversight hearing on Wildfire Management
  • June 19, 2007: House Natural Resources Subommittee on National Parks, Forest, and Public Lands oversight hearing on "Wildfire Preparedness: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure"



Senate Full Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Hearing "To consider scientific assessments of the impacts of global climate change on wildfire activity in the United States"

September 24, 2007



Panel 1
Dr. Ann Bartuska - Deputy Chief for Research and Development, Forest Service, Department of Agriculture
Dr. Susan Conrad - National Program Leader for Fire Ecology Research, Research and Development, US Forest
Dr. Thomas Swetnam - Director of the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research and Professor of Dendochronology, University of Arizona
Dr. John Helms - Professor Emeritus, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley

Committee members present

Chairman Jeff Bingaman (NM)
Ron Wyden (OR)
Jon Tester (MT)
Ken Salazar (CO)
Ranking Member Pete V. Domenici (NM)
Larry E. Craig (ID)
Bob Corker (TN)

Wildfire activity has increased markedly in the United States over the past few decades, especially in the West. Changing climate has decreased water supplies and increased temperatures and the occurrence of droughts. More fuel is present in forests each year as humans continue to extinguish most small, natural fires. This combination of fuel, heat, and lack of water continues to increase the number of large wildfires and acres burned in the U.S. during fire season. The purpose of this hearing is to assess the current effectiveness of federal funding on wildfire prevention, to understand how climate change is altering wildfire activity in the U.S., and to decide what legislative action will provide the best prevention for these changing conditions.

Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) stated that "climate change is driving the dramatic growth" of wildfires in recent history, and will continue to do so, quoting an estimate of a 25-75% increase in wildfires by the year 2050. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) reviewed some of the major U.S. fires from the past 150 years, the period argued to show climate change due to anthropogenic carbon output, which resulted in over 1,000 fatalities. He noted that the committee has held many hearings on wildfires over the past 15 years, showing its enduring dedication to this important topic.

The first witness, Dr. Ann Bartuska stated that climate change research must be used to create sound forest management policies for the future. Adaptation, litigation, and policy support are all necessary to implement researchers' findings. Dr. Bartuska also remarked that we must get science "into the hands of practitioners" to ensure our forests are well-managed. She suggested the committee should plan a solid investment in this research for about 100 years.

Dr. Susan Conrad mentioned the danger of positive feedbacks that in turn encourage more global warming and wildfires: darker land left after a fire absorbing more heat energy; increased carbon dioxide output from fires; and less oxygen output in areas where fires have killed vegetation. She also noted that planning and decision-making must be "site-specific", based on the needs of each region. All witnesses agreed that the needs of each forest should be assessed independently, based on the local ecosystem.

Dr. John Helms concurred, noting that forests in different areas have been and will continue to be affected differently by climate change. While forests have adapted to warming and cooling trends through time, the concern now is the increased rate of climate change and thus adaptation. Additionally, humans are increasingly responsible for starting forest fires. Dr. Helms cited that in one recent year, 83% of all wildfires were started by humans.

The research headed by Dr. Thomas Swetnam has shown that some environmental changes are also human-caused. Major settlement has led to a large decrease in the number of fires starting about 100 years ago, as evidenced by the decrease in burn scars on tree rings from that period. Yet temperatures have been increasing through the same time period. Before 1900, temperature and number of fires were positively-correlated. This change indicates human development of land and forest management has altered the natural burn patterns in the U.S.

In response to a question of where to focus policy and funding for forest management, Dr. Swetnam said frequent-burning forests need the most attention. Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) brought up the need to thin forests to remove fuel and lessen fire hazards, while Dr. Swetnam told the committee "we cannot thin our way out of this problem", and that more funding and collaboration between legislators and land management is needed. He recommended prescribed fires as a more cost-efficient means of reducing hazards. Dr. Bartuska said that the complex stresses within forests make solving the problem difficult and that thinning is only one piece of the solution. Dr. Conrad explained that, for example, in a closed-canopy, slow-growth forest, thinning will destroy the ecosystem. Dr. Swetnam agreed with all the other witnesses and again mentioned that "balanced design" is necessary in preventive efforts, and that we must first understand the forest area before deciding what action to take.

All witnesses acknowledged that humans have altered forest ecosystems, and thus the occurrences of wildfires, and that prevention must be chosen based on the individual ecosystem of each forest. Committee members were divided on which course of action would most effectively decrease wildfires. Senator Craig argued that increased thinning and grazing to remove fuel was the best solution, while Senator Tester felt that thinning would not solve the problem. Yet, even with these differences of opinion, all senators and witnesses repeatedly mentioned the need for compromise and bipartisan work on this issue. A better understanding of the effect of climate change on U.S. forests may provide a basis for more compromise between parties.

A link to witness testimony and archive webcast can be found here.



House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands legislative hearing on
H.R. 3094 and H.R. 2959, National Park Service Centennial Funding
August 2, 2007


Panel 1
The Honorable Mark E. Souder, (IN-03)
The Honorable Todd Tiahrt, (KS-04)
The Honorable Brian Baird, (WA-03)

Panel 2
Mary A. Bomar, Director, National Park Service, Department of the Interior

Panel 3
Vin Cipolla, President and CEO, National Park Foundation
Gary Kiedaisch, President and CEO, The Coleman Company, Inc.
Tom Kiernan, President, National Parks Conservation Association
Bill Wade, Chair, Executive Council, Coalition of National Park Service Retirees

On August 2, 2007, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands held a hearing to discuss the implications of two proposed bills addressing the future funding of the National Parks. H.R. 2959, an Administration proposal sponsored by Committee Ranking Member Don Young (R-AK) and H.R. 3094, a later bill introduced by Subcommittee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), would each authorize $100 million in annual appropriations for the Park Service over 10 years. H.R. 2959 provides up to the $100 million if there are matching funds from non-federal sources. The bill does not identify a source of revenue for the federal funds. H.R. 3094 makes the $100 million mandatory federal funding for the next ten years and uses increased fees for commercial activities on federal lands as the funding mechanism. These lands include those administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), the National Park Service, and other agencies. H.R. 3094 also breaks down how the $100 million is to be used into six initiatives: education, diversity, professional development, environmental leadership, natural resource protection, and capital improvement.

Chairman Grijalva opened the hearing by summarizing the bills and expressing his gratitude at the bipartisan support for the initiatives. However, he said that the Administration's proposal was incomplete for several reasons, not the least of which was that it lacks a funding mechanism. As Ranking Member Rob Bishop (R-UT) did not have any opening remarks, the first panel, featuring three fellow House members, issued their statements. Representative Mark Souter (R) of Indiana's 3rd district spoke about the importance of increased funding for National Parks. He said that there is a backlog in Park Service needs that cannot be met just by public funding, and advocated for the encouragement of private sector support of National Parks. Todd Tiahrt (R), representing Kansas' 4th district, is the Ranking Member on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, and delivered opening comments that acted mostly as an introduction to a later witness, Gary Kiedaisch, President and CEO of The Coleman Company, Inc. Representative Brian Baird (D), of Washington's 3rd district, was the last member of the first panel to testify. He discussed the various assets of a bill he and Souter introduced, which addresses ongoing funding and maintenance problems in National Parks. The bill stipulates 15 percent increases every year from fiscal year 2008 to 2016. 2016 is the year of the Park Service's centennial and seems to be the primary motivation for increasing federal funding for the national parks in general. This increase would effectively triple the Park Service budget over those nine years. Baird affirmed his support for the National Park System and, as attendance has recently remained flat, urged more Americans to visit.

When the first panel was questioned about their statements, Souter brought up an important issue with regard to projects in National Parks that could fall under the responsibility of other agencies, such as the Department of Transportation for road maintenance or Department of Homeland Security for border protection. At the present time, he said, National Parks are left to themselves to manage and pay for these services out of their own budgets. He said that the United States should be less "stove-piped" about the approach to funding the infrastructure of National Parks. Appropriating funds to DHS or DOT to deal with their responsibilities within National Parks will help ease the budget struggles facing the Park Service. Grijalva agreed and cited one such park in his home state of Arizona that spends between 30 and 40 percent of its budget on border security.

Many of the subcommittee members asked about the viability of the federal funds matching program and if it would do any good. The panelists all agreed that authorizing public matching funds would increase the private donations. "Whatever you set to match, that's what you'll be able to raise," Souter said. Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) expressed mixed feelings about Grijalva's bill, which would predetermine the focus of certain funds appropriated to the Park Service. Baird partially agreed by saying that there should be public input on the projects undertaken in the National Parks. Tiahrt added that focus on public demand would be beneficial; tailoring the recreational activities of parks to a regional community's demand would help attendance system-wide, he said.

The second panel featured the National Park Service Director, Mary Bomar. Bomar opened her remarks by thanking the committee for the attention being given to the Park Service. Matching funds, she said, would stimulate more private donations. Bomar also came out in opposition to H.R. 3094, saying that the Park Service would have to compete for funding through annual appropriations. Furthermore, she disapproved of the method of funding for the initiative and encouraged the use of one of the President's suggested methods of funding. Although critical of H.R. 3094, she expressed appreciation for the intent and contended that H.R. 2959 enacts the same essential aspects of the bill without the contentiousness of its funding mechanisms. During the question session, Grijalva rebutted Bomar's criticism by expressing confusion as to why the Park Service would encourage the President's suggested funding methods, one of which was oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Many of the subsequent questions by Grijalva and Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) addressed the prospect of private donations reaching $100 million. Bomar reassured the subcommittee that the Park Service has already received $68 million from 70 donors in one year. Bomar also displayed a binder of over 300 letters from businesses committing donations if the government provided matching funds. Capps also expressed concern that with increased private donations, parks might become more commercialized. In response, Bomar said that while the bills would entice more private funding, nothing in the bills would encourage increased influence relative to current protocol.

The third and final panel was made up of four members of the community at large to discuss their role with the National Park Service. Vin Cipolla, President of the National Park Foundation, the major charitable organization for the Park Service, described the many existing partnerships between businesses and the Service. He mentioned long-standing relationships with such companies as Ford, American Airlines, and Coca-Cola. A partnership with Unilever has been the longest standing corporate partner with the Foundation for nearly fifteen years, he said. Gary Keidaisch, President and CEO of the Coleman Company, Inc., testified on the importance of corporate partnerships in maintaining National Parks. Keidaisch also came out in support of H.R. 2959, saying that there was a greater potential windfall for National Parks by providing incentives to businesses to donate. He urged lawmakers to let corporate America contribute to the Park Service Centennial Celebration by playing a greater role in supporting National Parks, in funds and in kind. President of the National Parks Conservation Association, Thomas Kiernan, testified next on his group's views on the two bills. In dissecting the two bills, he said that his group backed H.R. 3094 due to its guaranteed amount of funding. In his criticism of H.R. 2959, Kiernan pointed out that the bill specifies matching funds for "cash" donations to the Park Service. However, he said that of the $61 million donated to National Parks in 2005, $52.5 million was given in non-cash contributions. As a result, he said that in that year only $8.5 million would have actually been matched. The last witness of the day was John "Bill" Wade, Executive Council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. He threw his organization's support behind H.R. 3094, mentioning its dedicated funding source as a necessary asset in assuring the $100 million. However, Wade also said that the National Park Service cited their backlog at $8 billion in maintenance costs. And while this bill provided a good start, he advocated for greater increases in the Park Service's budget, which stands at $2.4 billion annually for fiscal year 2008.

The full text of the two bills can be accessed at the THOMAS database by clicking on the following links:
H.R. 3094
H.R. 2959


House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands hearing on "Management by Exclusion: The Forest Service Use of Categorical Exclusions from NEPA."
June 28, 2007

Panel 1
Mark Rey, Undersecretary, Natural Resources and Environment, Department of Agriculture
Robin Nazzaro, Director of Natural Resources and Environment, Government Accountability Office
Harrison Pollak, Deputy Attorney General, State of California

Panel 2
Thomas C. Jensen, Sonneschein, Nath & Rosenthal LLP, Washington, D.C.
Mark Menlove, Executive Director, Winter Wildlands Alliance
Dr. Barry Noon, Professor, Colorado State University
Nathaniel Lawrence, Senior Attorney, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC)
Ray Vaughan, Executive Director, Wildlaw
John Stavros, New Harmony, UT

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands met on June 28, 2007 to discuss possible misuse of exclusion clauses by the Forest Service. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), passed under the Nixon Administration in 1970, requires Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) or Environmental Evaluations (EA) to be performed to assess environmental impacts before any "significant" action by a federal agency. However, a Categorical Exclusion (CE) may be used to avoid preparing an EIS or EA for actions that generally are not likely to have significant environmental impacts. Recent increased usage of CEs by the Forest Service as well as new definitions for what actions qualify for a CE have led to an investigation of the validity of some Forest Service actions.

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) commented that the Forest Service's use of NEPA Categorical Exclusions is "in serious need of oversight," and that the Forest Service "needs more administrative changes" than any other federal agency. He expressed concern that the Forest Service has expanded the use of CEs to include some projects that involve natural gas, oil, and timber production, projects which would likely have significant environmental impacts. He noted his belief that under the Bush Administration, there has been "less public involvement in decisions involving public forests."

Ranking Member Rob Bishop (R-UT) disagreed with Grijalva, saying that "the majority has a steep burden" to prove that the Forest Service has been misusing Categorical Exclusions. "History will be on the side of the agencies' use [of CEs]," he commented, adding that the American public has not been excluded from the process, and "public involvement is documented." He mentioned that in contrast to the current Democratic backlash against the use of CEs by the Forest Service, during the 109th Congress Representative Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced legislation (H.R. 4875) that would have increased the use of Categorical Exclusions in order to speed the combat of wildfires. Bishop also described the continuing wildfire in the Lake Tahoe area as "a reminder to us all of what happens when the Forest Service is prevented from acting."

The two panels included diverse witnesses with varying opinions on the usage of CEs. Mark Rey commented that "Categorical Exclusions are an integral part of the National Environmental Protection Act," and that even with the use of CEs agencies must still comply with "all requirements of any applicable laws, regulations, and policies including NEPA." He expressed that CEs help keep costs down for projects that will likely not have significant environmental impacts. Rey explained that under the Healthy Forests Initiative, the DOI created two new CEs for fire management activities: hazardous fuels reduction and post-fire rehabilitation. This expansion of the applicability of CEs caused some friction. When published in the Federal Register, nearly 39,000 comments were received over a 45 day period. In addition, the breadth of CE use was expanded by the 109th Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which added certain oil and gas development projects. Overall, Rey has seen this expansion of CE use as a positive change which has not been misused by the Forest Service. He also mentioned that EAs cost about $200,000, while an EIS typically will cost $1 million, thus showing the importance of CEs in terms of financing.

Robin Nazzaro, from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), noted that it is difficult to assess the impact of CE use, as the Forest Service did not maintain nationwide data on their use before 2005. A GAO report that was released in October 2006 summarized the use of CEs from 2003 to 2005. The study found that 72 percent of vegetation management projects, covering 2.9 million acres, were approved using Categorical Exclusions. Nazzaro explained that the majority of these projects were smaller than 5,000 acres, and larger projects typically had an EIS or EA performed. However, she was hesitant to draw conclusions from the study, cautioning that "more information over a longer period of time will be useful in addressing… whether Categorical Exclusions, individually or cumulatively, have any significant effect on the environment or whether their use is enabling more timely Forest Service vegetation management."

Harrison Pollak, representing the Attorney General of the State of California, expressed his "deep concern" over the Forest Service's "reliance on Categorical Exclusions to exempt forest management decisions of every size and scope from environmental review." He stressed the importance of public participation in forest planning, and stated his belief that the use of CEs has partially excluded the public. "While the California Attorney General understands that the Forest Sevice will, and should, continue to use Categorical Exclusions where appropriate," he said, "the Attorney General opposes the Forest Service's efforts over the past several years to exclude critical program-level and project-level decisions form the purview of NEPA."

Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the newest member of the Subcommittee, pressured Pollak about the continuing forest fires in the Lake Tahoe area, implying that lawsuits by the Attorney General's office delayed fire plans that could have prevented the fire. Pollak responded that "wise planning in advance" was the best fire management plan, and pointed out that eliminating public participation in initial stages can actually delay projects by inducing future litigation. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) also expressed concerns about the need for CEs to prevent forest fires. Rey responded that he does not blame environmentalists for forest fires, rather a "lack of consensus" on appropriate actions and timeframes is to blame.

Representative William Sali (R-ID) was also skeptical of Pollak, and questioned him about the expertise of the California Attorney General's office in regards to fire management. He was concerned about litigation by the office that conflicted with recommendations made by CalFire and the Cal State Resources organization. Pollak responded that "[the Attorney General's office] does not claim to have more expertise" than the other agencies, but "it is critical to allow different ideas to come to the table." Several times during the line of questioning, Pollak said he "had to disagree" with some of Sali's assertions that the Attorney General's office was trying to usurp other state agencies that had more experience and expertise. When Sali asked if Pollak thought the agencies had "another agenda," Pollak said no, but stressed that forest management decisions by Bush Administration appointees have not always been in the public's best interest. He pointed out that since 2005 trees up to 30 inches in diameter can be cut down using a Categorical Exclusion, even in protected National Monuments, "under the rubric of fire suppression."

Congressman Bishop asked Nazzaro if there had been any "definitive" evidence that the Forest Service had misused their authority. Nazzaro said that there did not appear to be evidence of misuse, but again mentioned the limited scope of the GAO's data on the issue. Bishop also commented that Pollak is an "extremely good lawyer," but that the California Attorney General's Office needs "better listening skills." Through his questioning, Bishop made it clear that he saw no indication that the Forest Service is misusing Categorical Exclusions.

The second panel of witnesses kicked off with testimony from Thomas Jensen, a former Forest Service employee, who warned about abusive use of CEs. He explained that the Forest Service "operates in a way that invites suspicion of its motives, conduct, or impacts," so that the credibility of the agency is weakened. Mark Menlove brought a different perspective to the issue, representing a coalition of canoeists, hikers, skiers, rafters, bikers, and other outdoor adventurers. "The trend to subject more and more Forest Service decisions to Categorical Exclusions causes our community concern," he said, adding "in particular, we believe that excluding forest plans from NEPA review is a grave mistake." He also expressed concern about an "ambiguous administrative review process," and a lack of "transparent agency decision-making that takes into account informed and meaningful public input when the topic is a multi-year plan for an entire forest."

Nathaniel Lawrence chastised the Forest Service for "across the board use of categorical exclusions that are ill-defined." In return, Bishop chastised Lawrence for not having his testimony in on time, grilling him for an entire five minutes. Barry Noon commented that "what is needed now is not a reduction in our government's commitment to environmental stewardship, but rather a strengthening of our resolve to conserve species and ecosystems." Ray Vaughan noted that CEs are "wonderful tools for small projects," but "can be very damaging" when abused. John Stavros, who nearly lost his house in a wildfire, promoted the use of CEs in order to expedite forest fire prevention strategies. "I am here to make it personal," he said, commenting on how he believes the Forest Service has been actively involving the public and using CEs only for minor projects that have no environmental impact. "Had [the firebreak project] taken two or three years of study, my house might not still be here," he added.

Text of Udall's Rocky Mountain FIRES Act (which did not reach a vote in the 109th Congress) can be found here.


Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Oversight Hearing on Wildfire Management
June 26, 2007

Mark Rey, Undersecretary, Natural Resources and Environment, Department of Agriculture (USDA)
C. Stephen Allred, Assistant Secretary, Land and Mineral Management, Department of the Interior (DOI)
Robin Nazzaro, Director of Natural Resources and Environment, Government Accountability Office (GAO)

On June 26, 2007, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to assess the preparedness of federal land management agencies for the 2007 wildfire season. Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) opened the hearing by expressing concern about the ongoing fires and "devastation as we speak." He stated that there was a "large deficiency" in the agencies managing wildfire suppression. Ranking Member Pete Domenici (R-NM) also expressed frustration about having to ask the "same question each year." He showed interest in trying to revamp "on-the-ground dynamics." Domenici also expressed his wish to stem forest fires not only for the human and economic impact but also due to the massive amounts of CO2 and other pollutants that are produced as a byproduct of blazes.

Testifying before the committee were three government officials: Stephen Allred of the Department of Interior, Under Secretary Mark Rey of the Department of Agriculture, and Robin Nazzaro of the Government Accountability Office. All three of the witnesses at the hearing had also been witnesses at a similar House hearing held on June 19, see (link). Both their written and oral testimony were essentially identical to that delivered a week prior.

In sum, Allred and Rey ran through Forest Service management procedure, successes, and difficulties. The two spoke about the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) and the difficulties posed by having progressively larger areas that have residences near wildfire-prone wilderness. Rey also ran through the successes of the Forest Service, including mentioning the fact that the Service treats more fuels today than ever before. In her testimony, Nazzaro, emphasized the need for ways to control the costs and said that the agencies have "yet to develop a vision" for effective cost containment.

Ranking Member Domenici began the question and answer period by pressing Allred and Rey on their methods for fire prevention and suppression. He told the officials that he had come to the conclusion that they "can't do what is logical [or] reasonable." Domenici then asked "is there nothing we can do but go on this path?" To that, Rey replied by saying "I think we're on the right path," but "the rate of progress is less than ideal." Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) questioned the witnesses about contributing factors to increased fire risk, namely the expanding infestation of the non-native bark beetle. He asked Rey several times about what the Service was doing to help treat what he called the "Katrina of the West." Rey cited community partnerships and stewardship contracts as ongoing measures to deal with the problem, but acknowledged that there had been difficulties along the way.

Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) continued the question and answer period by discussing the best methods for fire prevention on public lands. "We've left the forests heavily populated, and they are now dead and dying. And the publics (sic) won't let us back in to do reasonable things." Craig's only question asked how litigation complications (such as lawsuits and "evolving legal interpretations") might have affected fire costs and the ability of the Service to carry out its mission. Rey responded by saying that the current situation is "an exercise in two steps forward and one step back." Progress is still being made, but not at an ideal pace. Allred answered the question by also expressing frustration that many projects are being challenged on procedural grounds rather the aspects pertaining to treatment. He admitted that this difficulty was partly the agency's problem, but also due to "innovative approaches that our opponents take."

Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) had two very brief questions for Rey. He first asked if the Forest Service had local liaisons placed at each fire. His then asked if the Healthy Forest Initiative has helped the Service. To both questions, Rey replied with a quick, "yes."

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) first asked about what more Congress and the Service could be doing to improve the situation. Rey suggested partnering with industry, particularly the lumber and wood chip industry, to assist in treating forests. Murkowski then pursued a line of questioning about the use of certain Canadian tankers for assisting fire suppression from the air. The senator was skeptical about the Service's choice of not allowing the use of Canadian DC-6s in federally controlled fire suppression, while state-controlled suppression efforts can use the planes. Rey acknowledged that no DC-6s have crashed in the last five years, but the Service has concern about the ability for the aircraft to withstand the structural stresses caused by fire fighting.

Chairman Bingaman asked Nazzaro to expound on potential improvement in the Forest Service. She suggested that the Service make more transparent its prioritization process of dealing with fires, or at-risk zones. Many things need to be considered, she said, including resources and public safety, but said that no system existed in the Service to weigh the competing demands. Then turning to Rey, Bingaman pressed him on the methods the Service pays for fire costs, and suggested restructuring the requests by separating suppression costs from other Service activities. Rey said that that was a possibility.

Neither the witnesses' testimonies nor the subsequent questions by committee members directly addressed clearing techniques by the wood industry would be allowed to use on public lands. Methods were discussed in vague terms without much specificity on the precise techniques to be used, which can be both scientifically and politically controversial.


House Natural Resources Subommittee on National Parks, Forest, and Public Lands oversight hearing on
"Wildfire Preparedness: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure"
June 19, 2007

Mark Rey, Undersecretary, Natural Resources and Environment, Department of Agriculture (USDA)
C. Stephen Allred, Assistant Secretary, Land and Mineral Management, Department of the Interior (DOI)
Robin Nazzaro, Director of Natural Resources and Environment, Government Accountability Office (GAO)
Kathleen S. Tighe, Deputy Inspector General, USDA
Elizabeth C. Archuleta, Supervisor, Coconino County, Arizona
Robert Farris, Acting Georgia State Forester
Michael DeBonis, Southwest Region Director, Forest Guild
Kirk Rowdabaugh, Arizona State Forester
Dr. Peter J. Daugherty, Private Forestry Program Director, Oregon Department of Forestry

The House Natural Resources Committee National Parks, Forest, and Public Lands Subcommittee held an oversight hearing on June 19, 2007 to discuss past and future management of wildland fires. Current wildfires in the Southeastern United States, mainly in Georgia and Florida, have helped bring the total amount of land burned in 2007 to more than 1.4 million acres. This already exceeds the ten-year average of 964,500 acres per year.

In his opening comments, Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) was critical of the current situation. He called the President's request for a $96 million cut in wildfire preparedness for fiscal year (FY) 2008 "irresponsible." Grijalva criticized the forestry officials for not requesting the full amount of federal funding as allowed by the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003. "It's just common sense," he said. Grijalva also delved into the issue of environmental justice, expressing concern about the wildfire-poverty correlation and how poor people often reside in fire-prone areas.

Ranking Member Rob Bishop (R-UT) was worried about the Forest Service spending 47% of their budget for wildfire suppression. Spending so much on fires, he argued, came at the detriment of other vital programs. Bishop likened the National Forests to "tinderboxes" and compared the recent increases in wildfire severity to the movie Groundhog Day, where the same events, in this case wildfires, are repeated over and over again.

Stephen Allred and Mark Rey, representing the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture, respectively, supplied joint testimony on wildfire suppression. Allred explained the added difficulties that have developed in the past decade that contribute to increased wildfires and suppression problems. Longer drought, earlier snow melt, expansion of the wildland-urban interface (WUI), highly flammable invasive species and accumulation of "wildmass" on public lands have made wildlands more vulnerable to blazes. Additionally, 8.5 million new homes built in the WUI during the 1990s complicate strategies for fire fighting. Allred also briefly ran through the arsenal of equipment used in combating fires, such as airplanes and helicopters. In his oral testimony, Rey described ongoing progress and treatment efforts in preventing wildfires. Between the years 2000 and 2007, 25 million acres of federal "at-risk" lands were treated by the agency. Today, he said, public lands can be treated four times as quickly as in the 1990s.

Robin Nazzaro, Director of the Natural Resources and Environment Department at the Government Accountability Office next spoke about the problems that have plagued the Forest Service and proposals for how to rectify the situation. Nazzaro mentioned that despite Key's and Allred's testimony, the average acreage burned annually between the years 2000 and 2005 was 70% greater than the annual average through the 1990s. She focused mostly on the Forest Service's need to develop tactical plans when dealing with wildfire tasks. Nazzaro acknowledged that the issue of wildland fire prevention and containment involved complex conditions that were "decades in the making" and will take "decades to resolve."

Kathleen Tighe, of the Deputy Inspector General's office at the USDA, reported on a September 2006 audit of the Forest Service's progress relative to the "Healthy Forest" initiative. The audit made several suggestions for improvement. The Forest Service did not have a method for comparing risk assessments and thereby had no means of ensuring that the most critical projects for wildfire prevention were getting the appropriate attention. Furthermore, the Service's focus had been on annual targets of acreage, which the audit suggested as being an imprecise method of performance, since one acre of treatment could vary in the amount of risk being reduced.

During the first question and answer period, congressmen grilled panelists for over an hour on the problems facing the agencies dealing with wildfire suppression. Committee members partaking in the question session included Grijalva, Bishop, Tom Tancredo (R-CO), Dale Kildee (D-MI), Donna Christensen (D-VI), Doug Lambourn (R-CO), Steve Pearce (R-NM), Mark Udall (D-CO), John Duncan (R-TN), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Dean Heller, (R-NV), John Sarbanes (D-MD), and Heath Shuler (D-NC). Many Democrats focused on the appropriation of funds, unsure of how the Forest Service managed to pay for necessary wildfire suppression when costs exceeded the Service's budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. An average year costs about $1 billion in fire suppression, said Rey. He explained that the Secretary of the Interior had the ability to transfer allocations from other accounts such as fire prevention or other programs, to help offset the soaring costs of fire suppression. These projects, in turn, would remain underfunded or, alternatively, be supported with supplemental funds later in the fiscal year.

One particular concern, raised by Congressman Pearce, was the Forest Service's apparent delinquency in fire prevention for areas that are potentially high risk. Like many areas of the West, Ruidoso, New Mexico, part of Pearce's district, is at an elevated risk of wildfires due to the infestation of the spruce budworm. Pearce claimed over 6 years of inaction on the part of the Service for a region that summer after summer remains vulnerable to widespread fire damage. Several congressmen from Western states echoed his concerns as well as more general concerns about the prioritization of fire prevention projects.

Most members of the committee had left the hearing by the time the second panel came to testify. The first witness to testify was Elizabeth Archuleta, supervisor of Coconino County, Arizona, speaking on behalf of the National Association of Counties. Archuleta detailed the procedural challenges posed by managing a high fire-risk area, with only 13% private land. She said that Coconino County had successfully implemented collaborative grassroots groups and local agencies to help with wildfire prevention and fuel treatment. Such cooperation, she said, helped prioritize projects that needed the most attention. Archuleta recommended the committee direct funds to local management so as to better target problem areas.

Robert Farris, Acting State Forester of Georgia, described the ongoing wildfire crisis in his state. "The South is in the middle of the worst fire season in history," he said. This year, Georgia alone has had over 9,000 fires, which have been responsible for evacuations from schools, homes, and offices. While Farris did not advocate specific instances for increased funding, he stressed the importance of federally allocated State Fire Assistance Funds, which play a critical role in state-managed wildfire containment.

The consideration of wildfire prevention as an environmental justice issue was not brought to the table until Michael DeBonis, Southwest Region Director for the Forest Guild, discussed the important correlation between low-income areas and regions that are at risk to wildland fires - typically the WUI. DeBonis argued that such a correlation not only disadvantaged low-income residents, but also that low-income areas also lack some infrastructure that helps combat fires in the first place. For solutions, he argued for better monitoring systems and collaboration among federal agencies. DeBonis also stressed the importance of ensuring that assistance is applied in an equitable way for all at-risk communities.

Arizona State Forester Kirk Rowdabaugh echoed many of the same concerns that previous witnesses expressed. Namely, that wildfire preparedness must increase in the future for any possibility for success. He reminded the panel that nothing can be done by officials about weather and topography, but they can manage the fuels that encourage wildland fires. Pre-suppression activities, he said, are "critical" to controlling costs. Transferring funds from pre-suppression to suppression itself is yet another "borrowing from Peter to pay Paul" situation, which a previous panelist had invoked.

Dr. Peter J. Daugherty, Private Forestry Program Director at the Oregon Department of Forestry, argued for a stronger emphasis on preventative measures. "Given the severity of the problem," he said that the policy should be simple. However, he mentioned that the "lack of current investment" in treatment of federal lands indicates a "lack of clear national policy for sustainability." Daugherty did not cite specific techniques for such treatment, but in his written testimony suggested allowing the wood fiber industry to conduct such treatment. As it stands, federal wildfire policy is an "economically irrational choice," he stated. Active management of forest lands and encouragement for regional collaboration were the centerpieces to his suggestions for the committee.

Bishop, Grijalva, and Jay Inslee (D-WA), the three members who engaged in a quick second round of questions, mostly agreed with the panelists' suggestions for revamping of forest management policy.


Sources: Hearing testimony

Contributed by Paul Schramm, Summer 2007 AIPG/AGI Intern and Sargon de Jesus, Summer 2007 AIPG/AGI Intern.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on August 16, 2007