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Ranking Member Stabenow Opening Statement at Hearing on Wildfires

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, released the following opening statement – as prepared for delivery – at today’s hearing on wildfires. 

Stabenow’s statement, as prepared for delivery, follows.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for convening this important hearing.

I would like to welcome our witnesses – and give a special welcome to Chris Wood with Trout Unlimited which was founded in my home state of Michigan in 1959. I look forward to hearing your testimony on these critical issues.

This summer was yet another record breaking wildfire season that resulted in more than nine million burned acres, destruction of thousands of homes and properties, and tragically, took the lives of 13 wildland firefighters. 

I know all of our thoughts and prayers here today are with the families of those brave men and women.

This devastation is a stark reminder of the challenges we face when dealing with the issue of wildfires.

A warming climate, coupled with record droughts, and increased residential development in fire prone areas has made this problem worse and more complex for us to deal with.

While there is not a singular solution that will fix this problem – there are several measures that we as policy makers can enact now to help make a significant difference.

In July – this Committee heard from USDA Under Secretary Robert Bonnie who oversees the Forest Service about the urgent need to fix the Forest Service’s budget.

Fixing the Forest Service budget is of paramount importance and needs to be a top priority for this Congress and the relevant Committees.

The Forest Service is now routinely forced to transfer funds away from key projects like forest restoration and timber sales – which help alleviate the threat of wildfires – and instead must use those funds to help pay for firefighting. 

This dynamic, known as “fire transfer” or “fire borrowing” is a huge problem.

These transfers can cause what’s essentially a “stop work” order on ongoing or long-planned projects which only place much of our forests at risk to everything from fires to invasive species when this work can’t be completed.

For example, a grant to help protect our Michigan forests against invasive species was pulled back by the Forest Service so they could spend that money on fires instead.

There are stories similar to this across the country. It’s time these transfers stop.

To address this:  Senators Crapo and Wyden introduced bipartisan legislation – the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act – which would end the fire transfers by allowing the worst one to two percent of wildfires to be treated like natural disasters. 

Under this plan – the Forest Service would be able to fight the most severe fires more effectively by using disaster funding – rather than having to transfer funds from other accounts as they are now.

I’m a cosponsor of the Wyden/Crapo legislation and applaud their bipartisan approach.  The Senate should pass this bill immediately.

Also, the 2014 Farm Bill made significant reforms to the way we manage our National Forests. 

As we discuss building on those changes – something I’m sure we’ll do this morning – I would suggest that we also continue to prioritize the full implementation of the reforms enacted last year.

In fact just last week the State of Michigan and the Forest Service entered into a Good Neighbor Agreement. These agreements – which were expanded in the Farm Bill – are a great way that states and the federal government can partner to help restore our forests and sustain the more than 26,000 jobs that depend on healthy, vibrant forests in Michigan.

I hope this Committee will continue to work in a bipartisan fashion to enact consensus reforms to restore and protect our National Forests.

We should start by supporting the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which will free up much-needed resources to carry out the policies this Committee has long-championed.

Mr. Chairman – I appreciate you holding this hearing and as always, I stand ready to work with you and our colleagues on the Committee to help ensure our forests remain healthy and productive.

Thank You.