It is an honor to be here with you today, together with the BLM Director. All of us here in this room share interests and concerns related to public lands in the West. I welcome this opportunity to briefly share some thoughts with you.
First, a major area of concern for all of us is the need to restore healthy, resilient forest ecosystems in the West. More than 60 million acres of national forest land are in need of restoration. That’s almost a third of the National Forest System. In the last 20 years, we have seen tremendous tree mortality in the West, most recently in California, where about 66 million trees are now dead, many of them in the southern Sierra Nevada. That alone underlines the importance of finding solutions to ensure that we can sustain the nation’s forests and grasslands for generations to come.
We are making progress, for example through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The amount of collaboration success continues to grow. Collaboration is the foundation for our ongoing work in restoring healthy, resilient forests and rangelands.
Another concern we all share is growing fire seasons, the growing cost of fire suppression, and the growing share of our budgets that goes towards fire. We have got to find a solution for fire funding so that we can focus instead on restoring forests and grasslands—on creating resilient landscapes and communities.
Rangeland management continues to be a major concern, especially in the West. The National Forest System has 193 million acres, and 93 million of those acres are allocated in grazing allotments. We have about 7,300 active grazing allotments, but the number of permittees is declining. The number of cattle has remained about the same in the last 20 years—about 1.2 million. But the number of grazing permittees has fallen from about 9,000 in 1995 to about 6,000 in 2015, and that’s a concern for us, because we want to keep western rangelands actively managed for cattle rather than turned into housing developments.
With that said, poorly managed livestock grazing can adversely affect values ranging from water quality to wildlife habitat. Many people are justifiably concerned, but we need to focus specifically on the few poorly managed allotments and not treat all grazing as a problem. I ask you to help us sharpen our focus on the few places we need change.
As our population becomes more urban, people are losing sight of America’s western heritage. So we applaud efforts like the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission, with their multiple websites, like “Life on the Range.” Your efforts are making a measureable improvement in people’s understanding and appreciation for rangelands. We would like to work with you on initiatives like this. That can help us all in the long run.
As you know, invasive weeds are expanding. They are choking out some of our best rangelands, from the loss of bunchgrass ranges in western Montana, to the losses in Hells Canyon, to the cheatgrass invasion in the Great Basin. This is something we can all get behind, and this kind of forum and alignment with you here at the state level can help us all.
The 2014 Farm Bill gave us tools to help accelerate the pace and scale of restoration in partnership with states, communities, and organizations of all kinds. We now have 50 Good Neighbor Authority agreements in 20 states, with activities ranging from fish surveys and noxious weed control, to hazardous fuels treatments, to timber removal. Fifty-eight projects have been proposed nationally using the insect and disease provisions of the Farm Bill; 30 decisions have been signed using categorical exclusions and other tools.
We all know that NEPA continues to be a challenge. We need to keep working together to find ways to improve NEPA. Where there have been robust locally based collaborative groups, we have seen the most success. I suggest working together to develop and maintain strong locally based collaborative groups may pay off more than any legislative changes.
The bottom line for all of us is our multiple-use mandate. Multiple use is the basis for meeting a wide range of needs and desires for using and enjoying public lands. We ask you to work with us to meet our responsibility for multiple-use management by building a shared public understanding of the needs and desires as well as the constraints and realities associated with managing public lands. There will always be tension between competing uses; we need to find a way to resolve any conflicts.
In short, managing public lands means working together to find solutions across landscapes based on values we all share. We need to use all the tools at our disposal, finding ways to be more effective in creating resilient landscapes and communities. We all share an interest in delivering the products and services the public expects from their federal lands. The WGA can help bring people together to address the challenges we all face, for the benefit of generations to come.