Congress Hears Testimony on Wildfire Risks

June 7, 2018
Press Release

WASHINGTON – The House Subcommittee on Federal Lands today (June 7) heard from Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen at a hearing entitled, “Wildfire Risk, Forest Health, and Associated Management Priorities of the U.S. Forest Service.”

During the 115th Congress, the Subcommittee has held several hearings examining the health of National Forest System (NFS) lands, management challenges facing the Forest Service, as well as the extreme wildfire risk present on NFS lands. Protracted environmental reviews, obstructionist litigation and challenges associated with “fire borrowing” were commonly cited as barriers to increasing the pace and scale of active management of NFS lands. The Subcommittee’s legislative work culminated with H.R. 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, which passed the House on November 1, 2017.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 had several forest management and fire borrowing reform provisions, including more than $20.8 billion in new budgetary authority from FY 2020 to FY 2027 to end fire borrowing, and a new categorical exclusion from National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA, 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.) review for wildfire resilience projects. With the enactment of a fire funding fix, Congress must now exercise its oversight authority to ensure the Forest Service is stepping up to address management priorities that have long been neglected.

Congressman Bruce Westerman (AR-04), interim vice chair of the subcommittee, delivered the following opening remarks (full video available here; video of Westerman’s remarks begin at 26:15):

Thank you, Chairman McClintock, and thank you interim Chief Christensen for being with us this afternoon.

Today the subcommittee meets to examine the steps Forest Service leadership will be taking to aggressively implement new and existing management tools provided by Congress.

Three years ago, then-Forest Service Chief Tidwell indicated that nearly 58 million acres of Forest Service land were at significant risk for severe wildfire. Fast forward to 2018 and that number has only increased. This is a result of decades of neglect and mismanagement. I’ve stated many times before that we’re loving our trees to death.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that death toll will continue to grow – and as a result, the number of acres burned and unfortunately, the amount of property and even lives lost will likely continue to grow even with taking aggressive steps to address the millions of acres of overcrowded, insect and disease-infested timber owned by the Federal Government. But the sooner those steps are taken and the more aggressive they are, the quicker we’ll turn the tide on this self-induced environmental malfeasance.

This committee has repeatedly heard from the Forest Service about the variety of reasons barring scientific management of our nation’s forests.

From obstructionist litigation, to lengthy NEPA reviews, to budgetary constraints and fire borrowing, all were commonly cited as explanation for the underwhelming response to the growing issue of wildfire.

Now, the 115th Congress has taken some valuable steps to address the impediments to active management.

Not only did Congress allocate nearly $20 billion dollars of additional budgetary authority over the next ten years, but also included both a brand new categorical exclusion to specifically address wildfire risk, and increased the stewardship contracting ceiling to better allow the Forest Service to partner with state, local, and Tribal entities in active management.

Further, if the Senate would wake up, they would notice that my bill, H.R. 2936, The Resilient Federal Forestry Act passed the House with bipartisan support and includes several additional management reforms critical to protecting the long-term viability of our nation’s forests.

Folks, Congress in a bipartisan effort has addressed fire borrowing. We have enhanced and empowered state and local collaboration. We have provided the Forest Service with the tools it needs to aggressively treat for wildfire and disease. My question today is this: with these changes, what is the Forest Service going to do?

This crisis is decades in the making. It will take decades of sound management to restore our forests to good health.

Over this window of potential progress, we will undoubtedly witness additional years of catastrophic wildfire. This year is no exception – as I speak, there are 17 major wildfires burning in 9 different states. To date, over 1.75 million acres have burned nationwide, already eclipsing the numbers burned in all of 2016. 

It is because of these fires, and the ones to come, that I speak with such a sense of urgency. We must examine today specific steps the Forest Service will take to address catastrophic wildfires.

I am also keenly interested in how Forest Service leadership plans on reporting back on its progress.

Transparent, detailed explanation of the specific actions taken to manage and treat diseased and overcrowded acres will be necessary to demonstrate to the American people our efforts to reverse the years and years of neglect.

With the right leadership, and robust implementation, I am confident that the Forest Service can use the tools we have provided to roll back the clock on mismanagement of our nation’s forests.

If we ensure that every authority, every management dollar is efficiently and effectively used to treat for wildfire, we will have success.

The ball is in the Forest Service’s court – Congress has provided budget authority and management options. I am eager to hear today’s testimony, and am excited to learn about the steps being taken to address catastrophic wildfire.

Thank you, I yield back.