WILDFIRE: Witnesses urge budget, management reforms


11/19/15

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RGS in the News

Original story by Phil Taylor, E&E reporter was published Friday, November 6, 2015 on www.eenews.net (requires a subscriber access code to read). It is reproduced below.
 

Congress must reform the nation's wildfire budgeting and support more thinning of fire-prone forests, a panel of witnesses told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee yesterday.

But witnesses differed on the fine details on how to achieve those objectives. While all five supported passage of S. 235, a bill by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) to provide disaster funding for severe wildfires, witnesses differed over the extent to which Congress should also streamline timber management that could reduce wildfire severity.

Whether both goals should be pursued in tandem was a key theme at the hearing.

Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), quoting a former Forest Service chief, warned that a "crazy quilt of laws" and litigation are hindering the efficient management of national forests.

Solutions, he said, must "not only address funding fixes but more importantly advocate for solutions that improve the management of our forests."
"Tough decisions will have to be made on a bipartisan basis for policies that promote greater streamlining and agency efficiency so the Forest Service can actually conduct this kind of work," he said.

Ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) touted the committee's work to provide new forest management streamlining authority in the 2014 farm bill. It allows the Forest Service to use categorical exclusions (CE) for treatment projects up to 3,000 acres that prevent or respond to insect and disease outbreaks. Congress should prioritize passage of the Wyden-Crapo bill, which she co-sponsored, to end the practice of fire borrowing, she said.

"I hope we will start by supporting the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act," she said.

Yet committee members and witnesses discussed the potential for expanding the use of CEs to accelerate the National Environmental Policy Act process that often lands the agency in court.

Dan Dessecker, director of conservation policy for the Ruffed Grouse Society, said Congress must expand CEs for projects that promote wildlife habitat diversity, including younger forest types. The organization in May petitioned the Forest Service to perform "even-aged" forest treatments, which are sometimes referred to as clearcuts, that would create young forest habitats favored by the ruffed grouse, golden-winged warblers, and other game and non-game bird species (Greenwire, May 11).

These forest types, which also host critical pollinators, are declining at "precipitous rates," he said.

RGS has backed both S. 235 and an alternative bill by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) in the House that would both prevent wildfire borrowing and expand the use of CEs for logging efforts.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) called it "imperative" that funding reforms be coupled with streamlined forest management. He proposed expanded use of CEs, curbs on litigation and more landscape-scale restoration projects such as what the Forest Service is pursuing on the Black Hills National Forest in his home state.

"Failure to improve forest management will result in a continuation of dangerous increases in forest fires and damage to private property and to the environment," he said.

But Chris Wood, CEO of the conservation group Trout Unlimited and a former Forest Service official during the Clinton administration, cautioned that expanding CEs could sow distrust from members of the public. Limited expansions crafted through collaboration may be justified, Wood said, but "I'd be nervous about doing that writ large across the landscape."

He urged passage of WDFA and cautioned against focusing too heavily on timber harvests to restore forests.

"Restoration ... must be approached by looking at how to best recover ecological functions and processes that keep the land healthy," including by closing or relocating roads, fixing culverts and cleaning up abandoned mines, he said.

He added that many forests depend on wildfires to regenerate themselves and that hazardous fuel reductions and wildfire suppression should be focused around communities rather than the backcountry.

Twitter: @philipataylor Email: paylor@eenews.net

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Established in 1961, the Ruffed Grouse Society is North America's foremost conservation organization dedicated to preserving our sporting traditions by creating healthy forest habitat for ruffed grouse, American woodcock and other wildlife. RGS works with landowners and government agencies to develop critical habitat utilizing scientific management practices.

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