July 7, 2015
OP-ED: Protect Forests Too Much and They Go Up in Flames
By Rep. Rob Bishop
Today, 58 million acres of our nation's forests, an area slightly larger than my home state of Utah, are in danger of being burned to a crisp. The higher estimate reaches 86 million acres – add in a Michigan. What has made our nation's forests so sick? We did.
Until a couple of decades ago, catastrophic wildfires were not close to the problem they are today. Some argue that if Congress would just provide more funding that our communities would stop burning. Surely, Congress must responsibly fund current emergency response needs, but we must also address the underlying barriers to healthier, less fire-prone lands. Forest rangers around the country will tell you that active management through thinning and harvesting trees is vital to a healthy, thriving forest.
Without active management, the damaging effects of a fire increases exponentially. Lightning strikes dense overgrown thickets and the ensuing flames swallow the crowded trees. Before there is time to stop it, fires spread ferociously, burning everything in its path from wildlife to people's homes.
From the 1950's through the 1990's, the average amount of timber harvested from national forests average 10 to more than 12 billion board feet. From the 1990s, there was a dramatic decline. Last year, only 2.9 billion board feet were harvested. Much more is needed to restore fire-resiliency to our national forests and protect the millions of Americans that live near them.
Why has this decline been so dramatic? Environmental extremists who worship at the shrine of an untouched landscape disregard decades of forest stewardship experience based on their unshakeable belief that human action is always terrible for the environment. They have made a business model that supports their cause: creating interest groups and litigating the government at every turn in order to stop projects and raise more money to sound the alarms.
These entities have been wildly successful. The onslaught of litigation they have unleashed has brought the U.S. Forest Service to its knees, impeding forest management and putting both humans and wildlife in the path of catastrophic wildfires. Since 1999, Forest Service personnel estimate that time spent on environmental planning and protecting against lawsuits jumped from 40 to 60 percent of employees' time, draining taxpayer resources and crushing the Service's ability to actually manage forest land.
As a result, the 58 million acres identified as high risk for catastrophic wildfire is almost a third of the 193 million acre National Forest System. Due in large part to a web of regulatory processes and lengthy legal challenges, the agency has planned on thinning on less than two percent of that acreage this year.
Not all is lost. Collaboratives, groups of citizens at the local level, have banded together to develop plans for treating the land that they can support as a group. These collaboratives include stakeholders as diverse as recreational users, environmentalists, wildlife advocates, local government and industry who are working with the Service to develop publically supported forest management decisions. Unfortunately, collaboratives have also been undermined by these lawsuits, to the point where the incentive to form a collaborative is diminishing.
The danger of doing nothing is too high. The analysis paralysis brought by litigation and bureaucratic red tape is unacceptable. Some may think the destruction is only out in remote areas, but increasingly, suburban and urban dwellers have been victims of wildfire wrath. In 2012, northwest of Colorado Springs, the Waldo Canyon fire consumed the homes of more than 346 families out of the more than 32,000 people who were evacuated.
This could have been prevented. We can mitigate catastrophic wildfires while protecting local economies and securing the environment. In order to do so, Congress must seek out the best thinking on forest policy of the past few years. The current regulatory framework empowers interest group lawyers at the expense of both the environment and people must be shattered.
If leaders in Washington fail to change this culture of fear caused by litigation, millions more acres – and Americans homes – will be burned to the ground. Let's not miss the forest for the trees: it's time to stem the onslaught of litigation that is the true culprit of catastrophic wildfires on our treasured National Forests.
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