Sixty-five groups representing forestry, agriculture, wildlife conservation and local government sent a letter to Congressional leadership urging swift action on federal forest management and wildfire suppression funding reforms. The letter can be downloaded here.
The groups expressed support for solutions to improve the health of federally-owned forest lands, while ending the practice of “fire borrowing” that forces the U.S. Forest Service to re-direct funds from non-fire programs when the agency exhausts its wildfire suppression budget. This year has seen another record-breaking fire season, with over 8.2 million acres burned across the nation according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The fires cost over $2 billion to fight, requiring the Forest Service to temporarily redirect $400 million from other agency programs, including those that help reduce the size and severity of wildfires on federal land. As fire size and severity has increased, so has the amount of federal forest that has been determined to be at immediate risk of catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease. The Forest Service has estimated that at least 60 million acres of federally-owned land need some form of treatment through active forest management, including timber harvest, thinning and prescribed fire.
“Over 8.5 million acres have already burned this year and we may break the record that was set just two years ago. Some of the worst devastation has occurred on overstocked, unhealthy federal forestlands, where wildfires have affected millions of Americans living in nearby communities and polluted the air with toxic smoke. We need Congress to reform the federal forest management policies that are a key cause of the worsening wildfire seasons and deteriorating forest health,” the organizations write in their letter.
“A tremendous amount of attention is being focused on the need end the practice of “fire borrowing,” where the U.S. Forest Service is forced to raid non-fire accounts when its suppression budget is exhausted. We support reforming this nonsensical system that has an enormously disruptive effect on the agency’s budget and operational certainty. However, fixing fire borrowing alone will not address the underlying forest health crisis that is literally fueling these severe fires or contain the exponential growth in wildfire suppression spending.”
Legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress to address how federal forest lands are managed and how wildfire suppression is funded. In their letter to Congress, the organizations urge federal lawmakers to pass solutions that enable agencies to increase the pace and scale of forest management activities.
“Any effective solution to the forest health and wildfire crisis must also include meaningful policy and legal reforms to increase federal forest management and thinning activities. 60 to 80 million acres of federal forestland is overstocked and facing serious threats from fires, insects, and disease due to lack of active forest management. The Forest Service estimates that there are over 6 billion dead and dying trees across the West. Growth and mortality rates continue to far outpace fuels reduction and timber removals on our national forests. We also know that many wildlife populations are suffering due to the growing lack of habitat diversity on our federal forests.”
“Legislative proposals in both Houses take common sense approaches to expedite needed forest management projects under existing environmental laws, including Categorical Exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and streamlined NEPA procedures for larger, collaborative projects through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or Environmental Assessment (EA). Congress also needs to place reasonable limits on the activist litigation that forces federal land managers to “bulletproof” NEPA documents and expend limited agency resources defending projects from the never-ending procedural lawsuits.”