WASHINGTON, D.C. – The House Agriculture committee today held a hearing to review the 2002 wildfire season, one of the worst in the last 50 years, and to get the views of federal, state, and local officials on the outlook for the remainder of the 2003 wildfire season.
Congress has appropriated over half a billion dollars over the last three fiscal years to reduce hazardous fuel loads on the National Forests, and has increased other fire suppression and operations accounts as well. However, with over half of the 171 million acre National Forest System at high risk to catastrophic fire, the Forest Service continues to accomplish fewer than 3 million acres of hazardous fuels reduction projects annually.
The hearing today explored what administrative barriers are preventing timely fuels treatment, and provided an opportunity to examine the on-the-ground impact of catastrophic fires, insect, and disease outbreaks on public lands on States, counties and private landowners.
“The Forest Service has been plagued by cumbersome bureaucratic processes, and delays caused by environmental appeals and litigation,” Chairman Goodlatte said. “The Healthy Forests Initiative, which we passed out of Committee and then in the full House earlier this year, consists of narrowly targeted procedural changes which are intended to expedite results on the ground. But until this bill becomes law, the situation is still bleak with more than half of the National Forest System in an overstocked state, and persistent drought in the west leaving millions of acres at imminent risk. The nightly news attests to this. Today’s hearing provides us with an opportunity to hear from organizations whose members are on the front lines, living with the consequences of the severe forest health crisis afflicting our National Forests.”
The Committee heard from two panels of witnesses. The first panel featured Mr. Mark E. Rey, the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the United States Department of Agriculture.
In his testimony, Mr. Rey commended the Committee for their consistent efforts to enact forest health legislation, namely H.R. 1904, the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative.
The second panel included Mr. James B. Hull, Texas State Forester, Texas Forest Service, on behalf of the National Association of State Foresters, Ms. Sue Kupillas, County Commissioner, Jackson County, Oregon, on behalf of the National Association of Counties, and Mr. Charles A. “Buck” Vandersteen, Director, Louisiana Forestry Association, Alexandria, Louisiana, on behalf of the Louisiana Forestry Association and the American Tree Farm System.
Testifying before the committee, Mr. Vandersteen said, “The frustration we have is working our tails off to protect our land and seeing the Forest Service, with all the professional expertise and knowledge they have to manage public forests, having their hands tied and not being able to do anything to ensure healthy forests.”
The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee is scheduled to consider The Healthy Forests Restoration Act tomorrow.