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 PRESS RELEASE: House Committee on Resources 6/29/06

Walden statement on today's subcommittee hearing
on implementation of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act

WASHINGTON - The House Committee on Resources' Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health today held an oversight hearing entitled "Healthy Forests: Targets and Accomplishments." The purpose of the hearing was to look at how well the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are using the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) and Healthy Forest Initiative authorities and their timber sale programs to accomplish their objectives.

While admitting that much more work needs to be done, Interior Under Secretary Mark Rey and Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett today testified that the Administration has treated nearly 25 million acres of federal lands for hazardous fuels reduction and landscape restoration since 2000, and pledged to continue increasing spending and ramping up efforts for more aggressive action for reducing wildland fire threats in coming years.

Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden's (R-Ore.) opening statement was as follows:

As huge wildland fires burn out of control in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, California and elsewhere, we are again reminded of the explosive conditions that exist in our nation's forests. This year, as summer begins, we have almost three times the number of acres burned than the average for the previous ten years. Weather conditions and drought certainly exacerbate the situation, but the fundamental reason our fire seasons are getting worse is a direct consequence of an increasing accumulation of hazardous fuels, primarily in the form of overly-dense stands and an increase in the number of dead and dying trees. We all remember that this was the purpose behind the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, to provide agencies with new authorities for aggressively reducing the levels of hazardous fuels. When we passed HFRA in 2003, we knew that approximately 190 million acres of federal lands were at an unnaturally high risk of catastrophic fire, and that even with aggressive use of the new law it would still take many years if not decades to begin to effectively address the severity and scope of the problem. But we also knew that the sooner we began to treat these forests, the more land and communities we would protect in the long run.

The purpose of today's hearing therefore is to take a moment to review the progress of our fuels treatment programs - how effectively we have ramped up these efforts and what we have learned in the process. To do this we will not only review implementation of HFRA - the number and kinds of projects using those new authorities - but we will also evaluate the effectiveness of all the tools available to the Forest Service and BLM for these purposes; such as stewardship contracting, categorical exclusions, prescribed fire, wildland fire use, and the timber sale program itself. Few timber sales today are designed for the primary purpose of harvesting trees for economic purposes; in fact, most are intended to achieve other objectives such as thinning for fuels reduction, for wildlife habitat enhancement, or to create conditions more resistant to disease or insect epidemics.

Even though endless lawsuits have crippled the timber sale program, timber sales are still the primary tool for vegetative manipulation. For decades the annual Forest Service sale program averaged around 11 billion board feet (bbf), while today it sits at just over 2 bbf. Given that the annual net growth on our national forests is approximately 20 bbf and tree mortality each year is about 10 bbf, it is significant to point out that the timber sale program is only about one-tenth of the net growth and one-fifth of the mortality on these lands. It is in these simple numbers that we see the reason for the huge increase in hazardous fuels. And it is in the 80% reduction in sales that we can attribute the loss of hundreds of manufacturing facilities and logging companies - the very infrastructure we need to cost-effectively treat these dense forests. Some regions no longer have a viable forest products industry and must pay outright to have forests thinned and dead trees removed, with no offsetting income from the value of the removed wood or biomass. States like Colorado and Arizona that lack this infrastructure are scrambling to find ways of enticing investment in new milling and biomass enterprises, whereas most other states like Montana and Oregon are struggling to keep the few remaining facilities they still have.

I know that there still exist some of the decades old, us-verses-them, animosities when it comes to cutting trees and managing vegetation on our federal forests, but since passage of HFRA - and recently FERRA (Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act), through the House - I believe we are beginning to enter a time when the focus is changing from whether or not to cut trees to the overall health of our forests, what we want our forests to look like, and how to best achieve those objectives using the most appropriate tools. This is a much healthier dialogue, that is much more cooperative and collaborative, that focuses on conditions on the ground rather than on outdated slogans and rhetoric.

We have made some progress - and this Administration must be given credit for quadrupling the amount of spending and the number of acres treated for hazardous fuels reduction - but by all measures, we still have a long ways to go to begin bringing our forests back into healthier conditions, and it will take using a thoughtful combination of all available tools to achieve this. There are only two ways to reduce forest fuels: unintentionally, with wildfire, smoke, destroyed watersheds, and threatened communities; or intentionally, through planned, scientific, management treatments - hopefully, in the future, we will have the wisdom to emphasize the latter.

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