Testimony

 

STATEMENT OF

MARK REY

UNDER SECRETARY, NATURAL RESOURCES AND ENVIRONMENT

UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE;

LYNN SCARLETT

ASSISTANT SECRETARY, POLICY, MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR;

BEFORE THE

UNITED STATES SENATE

COMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURE, NUTRITION AND FORESTRY

CONCERNING

H.R.1904, THE HEALTHY FORESTS RESTORATION ACT OF 2003

JUNE 26, 2003

Mr. Chairman: 

We commend this committee for your recognition of the significance of the forest health issues in this country.  On May 20, 2003 President Bush called on Congress to move as quickly as possible to pass H.R. 1904 and get it to his desk for signature, and we appreciate your willingness to schedule this hearing today.  The Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Interior (DOI) strongly recommend that H.R. 1904 be enacted.  We would also like to work with the Committee to make technical amendments to clarify and strengthen the bill. 

Background

The need for action to restore our Nation’s public forests and rangelands to long-term health has never been greater.  Unnaturally catastrophic fires are just one consequence of the deteriorating forest and rangeland health that now affects more than 190 million acres of public land, an area twice the size of California.  Last year alone, wildfires burned over 7.1 million acres of public and private lands, leading to the destruction of thousands of structures and the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from hundreds of communities. Although nationally wildland fire activity so far this year had been less than the average of the last few years, on June 17 a wildfire, of as yet undetermined origin, blew out of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness in southern Arizona and overwhelmed the community of Summerhaven destroying an estimated 250 homes, businesses and other structures.  Much more of the interior West, Northwest, and portions of California and the Northern Rockies have already reached or are expected to reach critical fire danger indices by the end of the month.

Another serious issue facing Federal forests and rangelands across the country is the spread of invasive species and native bark beetles.  Although native insects and pathogens have historically existed, the frequency, extent and timing of outbreaks have changed dramatically.  Changes in tree stand density, composition and structure caused by fire exclusion, the lack of active management and drought are factors that have significantly affected outbreak patterns.  The result is the death of millions of trees across many thousands of acres in California, Utah, Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, the Mid-Atlantic States and the South.

While Federal, State and local land managers have attempted to restore forest and rangeland health and prevent these catastrophic wildfires and infestations, their efforts have been severely hampered by unnecessary and costly procedural delays that prevent them from acting in a timely manner to protect communities and avert ecological crises.  Excessive analysis, ineffective public involvement, and management inefficiencies trap land managers in costly procedural quagmires, where a single project can take years to move forward.  In the meantime, communities, wildlife habitat and forests and rangelands suffer.  Fires and insect infestations that begin on public lands can spread to private lands as well, causing significant property damage and threats to public health and safety.

Recognizing the impending crisis, President Bush proposed the Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI) in August 2002, and directed Federal agencies to develop several administrative and legislative tools to restore deteriorated Federal lands to healthy, natural conditions and assist in executing core components of the National Fire Plan.  Since the President’s announcement last August, Federal agencies have taken several regulatory steps to implement components of the HFI.

In cooperation with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), both USDA and DOI have focused on improving procedures for the collaborative selection and implementation of fuels treatments and forest and rangeland restoration projects.  The Secretaries have taken several administrative actions to accomplish these objectives, which include the following:

                    

In addition to these regulatory actions Congress has entrusted agency land managers with a critical tool to implement projects to achieve land management goals.  The recently passed Consolidated Appropriations Resolution, 2003 (PL 108-7) contains stewardship contracting authority.  This provision allows the BLM and the Forest Service to enter into long-term stewardship contracts with the private sector, non-profit organizations, local communities, and other entities. The Bureau of Land Management will implement stewardship contracting on a limited basis in FY 2003 while guidance for long-term implementation is developed. The Forest Service will implement stewardship contracting much as it did during the pilot program. Implementation is authorized on all units

We believe these actions, together with the provisions of H.R. 1904, will provide Federal land managers some of the important tools they need to restore these lands to a condition where they can resist disease, insects, and catastrophic fire.  However, additional tools and authorities such as those provided in H.R.1904 are still needed.

H.R. 1904

Title I would improve processes which now significantly contribute to intolerable delays, and allow timely implementation of critical fuels reduction projects. The title would provide streamlined procedures for USDA and the DOI to plan and conduct hazardous fuels projects on up to 20 million acres of Federal land that are most at-risk from wildfires while maintaining the integrity of the decision-making process.  The bill would allow the agencies to limit the range of proposed alternatives they would have to analyze for proposed hazardous fuels reduction projects, and would maintain requirements for public notice and input.  We believe this authority would provide the agencies with the latitude necessary to efficiently reduce the risk of damage to communities and municipal water supplies and at risk Federal lands from catastrophic wildfires.  It would also require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish an administrative appeals process for these projects as an alternative to the current legislatively mandated appeals process.  The title also would provide for a common sense standard for injunctive relief and reasonable timeframes for judicial review. 

Title II would authorize a $25 million grant program for each of the fiscal years 2004 through 2008.  The Secretary concerned would be authorized to make grants to persons that own or operate a facility that uses biomass and to persons to offset the cost of projects to add value to biomass.  This authority would help encourage energy generation and other commercial utilization of low value or non-merchantable biomass, including wood, chips, brush, thinnings, and slash removed to reduce hazardous fuels, to reduce the risk of disease or insect infestation, or to contain disease or insect infestation. 

Title III would authorize a $15 million program within the Forest Service for each of the fiscal years 2004 through 2008, to provide State forestry agencies technical, financial and related assistance for the purpose of expanding State capacity to address watershed issues on non-Federal forested lands.

Title IV would require the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, with the assistance of universities and forestry schools, to develop an accelerated basic and applied assessment program on certain Federal lands to combat infestations by bark beetles, including Southern pine beetles, hemlock woolly adelgids, emerald ash borers, red oak borers, and white oak borers.  This title also would authorize the Secretaries to conduct applied silvicultural assessments on certain Federal lands.  An assessment of a site of less than 1,000 acres is deemed to be categorically excluded from further analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.  We believe this will allow us to quickly design and test methods of responding to insect outbreaks.

Title V authorizes a $15 million Healthy Forests Reserve Program within the Forest Service for each of the fiscal years 2004 through 2008 for the purposes of protecting, restoring and enhancing degraded forest ecosystems to promote the recovery of threatened and endangered species.

Conclusion

Title VI would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to carry out a comprehensive program to inventory, monitor, characterize, assess and identify forest stands nationwide.  In carrying out such a program, the Secretary would also be directed to develop an “early warning system” for potential catastrophic threats to forests.  Title VI authorizes $5 million for each of the fiscal years 2004 through 2008.

Mr. Chairman, USDA and DOI are committed to working with Congress, State, local and tribal officials and the public to advance common-sense solutions to protect communities and people, and to restore forest and rangeland health. 

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this bill.  We will be glad to answer any questions you may have.