Hearing on forest treatment legislation turns into theater of the absurd
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Congress took another half-hearted swing at the so-called forest health crisis this week, with a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on a trio of forest managment bills.
At their most extreme, the measures would eliminate consideration of impacts to endangered species and require the Forest Service to implement proposals under a strict timeline — even if the required environmental reviews aren’t complete.
While each of the three bills include some provisions that could help public land managers address beetle-killed forests and potentially facilitate restoration work, the hearing itself quickly degenerated into classic partisan political theater, with anti-environmental Republicans blaming the Forest Service for the pine beetle epidemic, and liberal Democrats drawing analogies between baseball players on steroids and climate change.
You can watch an archived video of the hearing at the committee website.
“We need to make restoration easier,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican who said the “extortionist tactics of environmental groups” have impeded land management efforts.
Gosar’s inaccurate statements were parroted by Colorado Republican Scott Tipton, who claimed that lack of active forest management has allowed the pine beetles to spread to catastrophic levels, never mind other factors like climate and fire suppression.
Worst of all was Rep. Cory Gardner’s rude frontal assault on Associate Forest Service Chief Mary Wagner, who tried to answer questions about treatments while Gardner, a Colorado Republican, repeatedly interrupted her. Watch the hearing here; Gardner’s bit, which is an embarrassment to Colorado, is about halfway into the video.
At this point, it’s beyond ironic, but worth mentioning that it’s primarily been the GOP that has sought to cut public land agency budgets while at the same time screaming loudly that those same agencies aren’t doing enough active forest management.
After Gardner’s outburst, Wagner said that the Forest Service is trying to focus on forest restoration with the available resources.
“There are about 65 to 82 million acres in need of restoration … we have strides to increase the pace, but clearly, we have more work to do,” she said, adding that the Forest Service opposes two of the measures as drafted.
Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs made a plea for money after outlining the small-scale successes of local projects implemented in a partnership between state, local and federal agencies.
“The beetle epidemic has left us with 126,000 acres of dead trees over the last 10 years; we now have a major challenge to respond to these conditions,” Gibbs said. “The cost to suppress fires vastly exceeds proactive treatments, so we need more funding, plain and simple,” Gibbs said, adding that he hopes Congress can combine the best of the three measures into a single bill to address the “dire conditions of our forests” and stem the drain on the U.S. Treasury.
Ed Markey, the ranking Democrat on the panel, tried to draw a link between declining forest health and climate change with the support of Joe Romm as a panel witness.
Romm, of the Center for American Progress, warned that inaction on climate change will turn farmlands to dust and could potentially lead to a 10-degree temperature increase by the end of the century, sending many forests into a sharp death spiral.
“Ignoring carbon and focusing solely on fuel treatments is like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic … it will bring ruin of large parts of your districts and states,” Romm warned.
The three bills:
- H.R. 5744 (Gosar), To address the forest health, public safety, and wildlife habitat threat presented by the risk of wildfire, including catastrophic wildfire, on National Forest System lands and public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management by requiring the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior to expedite forest management projects relating to hazardous fuels reduction, forest health, and economic development, and for other purposes. “Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act of 2012”
- H.R. 5960 (Markey), To amend the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 to improve the response to insect infestations and related diseases and to change the funding source for the Healthy Forests Reserve Program, to codify the stewardship end result contracting and good neighbor authorities, and to amend the emergency watershed protection program to improve post fire rehabilitation, and for other purposes. “Depleting Risk from Insect Infestation, Soil Erosion, and Catastrophic Fire Act of 2012”
- H.R. 6089 (Tipton), To address the bark beetle epidemic, drought, deteriorating forest health conditions, and high risk of wildfires on National Forest System land and land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management in the United States by expanding authorities established in the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 to provide emergency measures for high-risk areas identified by such States, to make permanent Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management authority to conduct good-neighbor cooperation with States to reduce wildfire risks, and for other purposes.