11.05.15

Senate Agriculture Committee Holds Hearing on Wildfire

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, today held a hearing on U.S. wildfire budgetary impacts and threats to natural resources.

“I want to emphasize that our Committee has oversight responsibilities over the U.S. Forest Service, whose primary mission is to sustain the overall health, diversity and productivity of our country’s national forests” said Chairman Roberts.

“It is time Congress, the Administration, and stakeholders advocate for solutions that not only address funding fixes, but more importantly advocate for solutions that improve the management of our national forests. 

“Wildfire knows no boundaries. Forest Service inefficiencies and bureaucratic red tape is a significant contributor prohibiting necessary and valuable restoration work. If nothing changes, everything goes up in smoke anyway.”  

For witness info, testimonies, and to watch the hearing, click here.

The following is Chairman Roberts’ opening statement as prepared for delivery:

Good morning. I call this meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry to order.

Today the Committee turns its attention to a topic that is quite timely coming off the end of a disastrous wildfire season. 

It is my hope that this hearing adds to the public record about the need to address significant policy issues regarding catastrophic wildfire and forest management on Federal, state, and private lands.  

Let me emphasize that our Committee has oversight responsibilities over the U.S. Forest Service, whose primary mission is to sustain the overall health, diversity and productivity of our country’s national forests.

Often thought as a Western issue on public lands, this hearing serves as a reminder that the Agriculture Committee has a critical role in the larger wildfire debate. 

National forests, unlike national parks and refuges, are supposed to be administered and managed in a manner to provide multiple uses and benefits.   

The Forest Service readily admits that nearly half of the acres of the National Forest System are at high risk of devastating insect infestations, disease, and catastrophic wildfires.

As a result of policy decisions from decades ago, we are now witnessing a significant decline in timber harvests and frivolous lawsuits halting active forest management and forest restoration projects, leaving our national forests consisting of overstocked stands. 

Coupled with other threats, such as chronic drought and uncharacteristic insect outbreaks, our national forests are sitting as hazardous fuel stockpiles susceptible to damaging wildfires. 

Today’s wildfire season generates larger, hotter, and more dangerous wildfires, which unlike the occurrence of natural wildfires that have restorative abilities, these catastrophic emergencies devastate landscapes, ecosystems, and communities. 

In response to this, the 2014 Farm Bill provided some valuable tools and authorities to the Forest Service. The Forest Service has made positive strides in implementing these provisions, but we have to see more progress and work on the ground.    

This summer, the Administration warned Congress that wildfire suppression costs will consume the Forest Service’s annually appropriated budget in the coming years.  

Wildfire preparedness and suppression costs now account for nearly half of the agency’s annual discretionary budget – that’s up from $1.6 billion in 1994 to $3.9 billion in 2014. 

Meanwhile, in order to address rising agency costs, the Forest Service redirects other non-fire account program resources to cover the costs for wildfire suppression. This redirection of program funding – or “fire borrowing” – is disruptive to the Forest Service and its ability to conduct other vital activities like preventative active forest management and hazardous fuels reductions.

The Agriculture Committee has a long history of working on and advancing legislation on forestry matters, most notably with the passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003. I would like to remind everyone that our Committee is a resource, and we want to work with you as Congress tries to tackle the wildfire issue. 

My hope is the message shared with us today reinforces and necessitates that the status quo is unacceptable, and Congress must focus on this issue.

Before a shovel can break ground or even a chainsaw can enter a national forest – as a former Forest Service Chief once said – “there is a crazy quilt of laws” the Forest Service must comply with, which is time consuming and costly. The Forest Service must comply with well over 50 separate laws like NEPA, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, to name a few – the entire process averaging at least 3 years for agency review and approval from the project’s original inception.

Not to mention, the threat of frivolous lawsuits to stop this kind of restoration work adds further time, uncertainty, costs, and delays! 

There are fundamental and systemic problems contributing to the degradation of the National Forest System.

It is time Congress, the Administration, and stakeholders advocate for solutions that not only address funding fixes, but more importantly advocate for solutions that improve the management of our national forests.

Tough decisions will have to be made on a bipartisan basis for policies that promote greater streamlining and agency efficiencies so the Forest Service can actually conduct this kind of work. 

Wildfire knows no boundaries.  Forest Service inefficiencies and bureaucratic red tape is a significant contributor prohibiting necessary and valuable restoration work. If nothing changes, everything goes up in smoke anyway.    

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses. 

With that, I recognize Senator Stabenow for any remarks.    

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