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The Fence Post: House Ag subcommittee hears from Forest Service chief

THE FENCE POST

At a House Agriculture Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee hearing today, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore listed the many problems in the national forests that need to be addressed to mitigate forest fires.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., subcommittee chair, and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., subcommittee ranking member, presented somewhat competing visions for the future.

Moore, who testified remotely, said in a lengthy opening statement that the Forest Service is attempting to deal with personnel issues and carries out three million fuels reduction treatments each year, but the nation is enduring “another devastating wildfire year” that will require reforestation and rebuilding damaged Forest Service facilities. The Forest Service is falling behind each year in its efforts to rehabilitate the forests.

Moore said the Forest Service put out 98% of fires, but the remaining 2% caused immense damage. When fires escape an “initial attack,” they take on a different character.

“America’s forests are in a state of emergency,” Moore said. The Forest Service needs to fill open positions and thin the forests, he said under questioning. The increases in pay that the Biden administration made are only “a beginning,” he said.

In her opening statement, Spanberger compared the situation in the West to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and noted that Congress did not address the Dust Bowl problems until dust from the Midwest reached the steps of the Capitol in March 1935, and said she hoped it would not be necessary for the smoke to reach the Capitol before action is taken.

But Spanberger said the House Agriculture Committee “is acting” through the forestry provisions in the Build Back Better Act, also known as the budget reconciliation bill. Moore, who was appointed by President Biden as the first Black Forest Service chief, also said that the forestry provisions in the Build Back Better bill are vital.

In his opening statement, LaMalfa said, “While I welcome the attention and funding for forest management in the agriculture portion of the reconciliation package, the section will do little to encourage the work that is urgently needed. It doesn’t work because the restrictions are so great that the Forest Service would be drastically limited in which projects they could authorize and where they could be done.

“The provisions largely emphasize non-commercial projects, while discouraging projects that would require commercial activity. You have to have some level of commercial projects in many of the acres that require treatment in order for them to work.

“The bill also overcomplicates funding for the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and contains multiple provisions that would require the Forest Service to enter into rulemaking that would take years to complete.”

LaMalfa also said, “Although the challenges before the Forest Service are many, the solutions that we must put into practice to prevent catastrophic wildfire are clear and well-established.

“While many continue to blame a changing climate for the increase in acres burned each year and the greater intensity of recent wildfires, the fact is most of our forests are overgrown and overstocked – and we aren’t doing enough management to reduce the fuel loads that have dramatically intensified the wildfire crisis.”

During the markup’s amendment process, LaMalfa said, Democrats rejected several amendments that would have bolstered hazardous fuels reduction, funded immediate fire suppression activities and post-fire restoration, and increased firefighter salaries.