June is the start of fire season in Idaho and most of the West.
In recent years, we have experienced devastating fires of unprecedented size and intensity. This includes the Pioneer Fire, which burned 190,000 acres of Boise National Forest in 2016 and the Tepee Springs Fire, which burned 95,000 acres in the Payette National Forest in 2015. This year’s fire season is projected to be “above average,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).
The main reason we are experiencing these devastating fires is because our forests have been poorly managed, leading to historically high fuel loads.
Over the past 30 years, the Forest Service has dramatically reduced the scope of its management activities in the national forests, mainly because of the increase in litigation springing from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In Fiscal Year 2015, the Forest Service harvested 2.9 billion board feet of timber from National Forest timberlands, a 70 percent decline from what was harvested three decades ago. As you can see in the chart below, there is a direct link between the dwindling amount of timber harvested in federal forests versus the increasing number of acres burned.
The decline in Idaho’s timber harvesting has also had a devastating effect on our rural communities. Unemployment has skyrocketed, and counties that depend on timber receipts to fund schools, roads and daily operations have become desolate and broke.
The best way to solve these interconnected problems is to stop the government’s overregulation and litigation so that we can put our people and our land back to work. Unfortunately, most politicians want to put a band-aid on these problems, instead of actually fixing them.
We see that with SRS (“Secure Rural Schools”) funding. These are federal payments to local governments to help offset their losses in revenue from a decline in federal timber harvests over the past several decades. SRS was intended to be a temporary program but instead has turned into a typical Washington “solution.” Instead of empowering people by getting government out of the way, SRS makes rural counties more dependent on Washington. SRS is necessary for the time being, given the unfairness of the current situation. But it should be a stopgap measure on the way to a long-term fix.
Last week, I addressed these issues with Vicki Christiansen, the Interim Chief of the Forest Service, at an oversight hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee.
[Questioning Interim Chief Christiansen at last week’s Oversight hearing]
I pressed Interim Chief Christiansen on what the Forest Service is doing specifically to increase timber harvesting and to reduce the cost of NEPA compliance. She reported some encouraging information (for example, since the Forest Service adopted a wholesale review process eight months ago, NEPA costs have fallen by about 10 percent). However, I know the Forest Service can do a lot more if the commitment and leadership is there.
At the hearing, I also advocated for an innovative idea to aid timber-reliant communities. The Forest Service routinely relies on stewardship contracts and good neighbor authority to do work necessary in the forests. Good neighbor authority and stewardship contracting do not require revenue sharing with the counties. I encouraged Interim Chief Christiansen to have the Forest Service use traditional timber sales, so that local communities can benefit economically. Going forward, I will continue to press her on this idea and other ways we can aid timber-reliant communities.
Better forest management is critical for Idaho’s economy, our environment, and our public safety. I will continue fighting for real solutions, instead of kicking the can down the road. Our way of life depends on it.
To watch my full exchange with Interim Chief Christiansen, please click here.