Opening Statement of Rep. Robert F. (Bob) Smtih at Field Hearing on Forest Ecosystem Health in Sunriver, Oregon

Jan 16, 1997

Opening Statement
Rep. Robert F. (Bob) Smith (R-OR)
Chairman, House Committee on Agriculture
Field Hearing on Forest Ecosystem Health
Sunriver, Oregon
January 16, 1997

"Good Morning and welcome to the first hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture on Forest Ecosystem Health. I would like to extend my thanks to both the Members and Witnesses who have traveled here to participate in a discussion on this critical issue despite recent flooding and the destruction incurred as a result. I know it was difficult for many of you to leave your communities in this time of need.

Certain information generally required of witnesses by adoption of the House rules on January 7 will not be required in this hearing because this hearing was announced, and these witnesses invited to appear, prior to the adoption of those rules. Moreover, the procedures for implementing clause 2(g) of House Rule XI applicable to witnesses and its specific applicability have yet to be precisely determined by the Committee.

I am often asked what the Committee on Agriculture's priorities will be in this, the 105th Congress, and my first stint as Chairman of the Committee. I don't yet know the complete answer to that, but I do know that forestry -- the health of the forests and our communities -- will be a principal focus of this Committee. It is no coincidence that the Agriculture Committee's first hearing of this Congress is on forestry.

That said, this hearing -- and the whole of our deliberations in the next two years -- will be conducted on the basis of mutual respect, accommodation, and decorum. We are joined today by scientists, environmentalists, community leaders, federal foresters, and representatives of the timber industry, not to mention the lawmakers here who will help write our laws.

Every one is to be respected; every one shall speak without interruption; every one is a valued part of this debate, and is entitled to his or her views. And anyone here who does not abide by this simple principle will not remain in this room for very long. Today, and throughout the next two years, we will conduct a debate that is worthy of the tremendous forest resource we enjoy, and our forest will be better off as a result.

This morning we will learn more about forest ecosystem conditions in the West from a group of scientists; Under Secretary of Agriculture Lyons will describe how the Administration is attempting to address forest health concerns; Governor Kitzhaber will discuss his plan to restore forest health, and the last panel will comment on the implementation of various strategies for improving forest health.

The deteriorating health of western forest ecosystems has been recognized for more than a decade. Fire suppression, drought, and inactive management have left our forests in a weakened condition and open to insect attacks and catastrophic fire events. Evidence of what is more aptly called "forest sickness" can be observed on hillsides covered with gray and charred trees across the West.

In 1996 alone, nearly one million acres of forest land were ravaged by fire in Oregon. Dead, dying, and overcrowded forests set the stage for last summer's fires. A high price was paid for the lack of management of these forests. Wildlife and fisheries habitat were lost, air and water quality degraded. Homes burned and human lives were threatened. Valuable resources were destroyed and tens of millions of dollars were expended to control these fires.

This crisis is not new to us. Dozens of scientific reports have been produced describing the poor condition of forest ecosystems in the West, and yet, it continues to spread. The scientific record is clear that a crisis exists and will worsen if nature is left to its own devices. What has been less clear is how we go about restoring these ecosystems to a healthy condition.

My strategy for restoring forest ecosystems to a healthy condition is to develop a demonstration program in which one or two National Forests in each affected state would implement ecosystem health pilot projects. My strategy would include:

* Credible science;
* Citizen involvement from diverse interests to build broad support for and public confidence in ecosystem management;
* Management at a landscape or watershed level, and
* Flexibility for federal land managers at the ground level.

The last decade was spent producing scientific reports and planning documents. Some might argue that we don't know all the answers. They are right, and we never will. But we do have an extensive scientific record on ecosystem health that points squarely to the benefits of management. It is time to move forward, to get on with the work at hand before it's too late.

Again, thank you all for being here."

Smith represents Oregon's Second Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district is home to ten national forests, and Smith has made forestry a principal focus of the Agriculture Committee in the 105th Congress.