As Colorado recuperates from two of the state's most destructive wildfires in history -- and as other forests in the drought- and beetle-plagued West stand ready to ignite -- some experts say Congress must move swiftly to strengthen federal agencies' hands in preventing and suppressing future blazes.
In recent months, lawmakers have floated a handful of proposals ranging from increased funding for collaborative restoration projects to extending agencies' stewardship contracting authorities and streamlining environmental reviews for tree removals.
Others have proposed giving state foresters more authority to designate fuel reduction projects on federal forests or investing in a new fleet of wildfire tankers that could better squelch newly sparked blazes.
But despite the devastation and the prospect of more, it is unlikely any action will be taken before the smoke from this month's megafires clears. So far, no stand-alone bills -- even ones introduced months ago -- have received a committee hearing, a possible symptom of other legislative priorities or the arrival of campaign season.
Tom Harbour, the Forest Service's national director of fire and aviation management, yesterday said he would like Congress to boost support for hazardous fuels removal, to fully fund the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, to extend the agency's stewardship contracting authority and to consider combining several forest programs under a single integrated resources restoration budget. But he didn't recommend passage of any specific legislation.
"We have 60 to 70 million acres of national forest system lands at high risk of catastrophic fire," he said, adding that the agency continues to seek ways to streamline its project reviews.
But Colorado lawmakers in particular say Congress must look for ways to accelerate wildfire prevention efforts. The state's High Park and Waldo Canyon fires over the past month claimed roughly 600 houses.
As of yesterday, wildfires nationwide had burned more than 3 million acres, slightly above the 10-year average for this time of year, according to federal statistics.
"This summer has been a wake-up call for members of Congress, as it has become beyond clear that Western communities need as many forest management tools as we can give in order to mitigate the risk of out-of-control wildfires," said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who is a co-sponsor of H.R. 6089, a proposal introduced last week by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) to give state and local officials more authority to designate fuels reduction projects.
The bill, which Tipton said would protect communities, species habitats, water supplies and natural areas, would allow treatment projects to move forward under the streamlined review processes established in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003.
A similar bill was introduced last month by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee, aimed at expediting the removal of beetle-killed trees using the same expedited reviews.
Markey and four other Democrats sent a letter to Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) late last month requesting a hearing on H.R. 5960, noting that the committee has yet to hold hearings on wildfires or the Forest Service's 2013 budget.
Markey's bill would also extend agencies' stewardship contracting authority, which allows proceeds from timber sales to pay for restoration projects that make forests less susceptible to future wildfires.
Stewardship contracting, which expires in 2013 and is a top priority for the Obama administration, would also be extended by the Senate's farm bill, which passed last month, as well as the House's version of the bill, which is under consideration in the chamber's Agriculture Committee (see related story).
"This issue is critical to the West and our committee should act in a swift, bipartisan manner to consider this legislation," Markey and his colleagues wrote.
But Republicans shot back, accusing Democrats of politicizing the Colorado fires. Committee leaders said they had supported a measure to bolster the Forest Service's air tanker fleet and had convened a pair of field hearings in South Dakota and Colorado to hear from communities directly affected by pine beetle outbreaks and wildfires.
"Either in the committee or the Western caucus, we will be talking about this issue in the near future," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who chairs the committee's public lands subpanel. "Because there is a lot of suffering going on now, I don't want to take that as a political advantage right now and play off of them."
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Interior Department and Forest Service, said his panel has fully funded wildfire fighting at its 10-year average. He said there's not much more appropriators can do to help.
"We can't stop wildfires. What we can do is make sure they have the resources to fight them, and then we have to work to get the tanker fleet built up," said Simpson, who represents Idaho's eastern district, where a recent wildfire near Pocatello torched several dozen homes.
"There's not much else we can do in terms of trying to stop the wildfires," Simpson added. "I think we're doing all we can."
While not a direct response to wildfires, the House Appropriations Committee last month passed a bill that fully funds the CFLR program, which was established in 2009 to enhance stakeholder cooperation on long-term restoration projects.
The program, which is fully funded this year at $40 million, enjoys broad bipartisan support and was found to reduce fuel and wildfire risk on 154,000 acres in its first year, according to the Forest Service.
Another proposal introduced in May by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) would streamline approval of both logging and grazing projects to reduce the risk of catastrophic blazes (E&E Daily, May 16).
A futile effort?
Yet some lawmakers and environmentalists argue that federal agencies stand little chance of reining in wildfires, particularly as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of droughts.
"Wildfires have become as severe as they've become because it's been hotter and drier in the West than it's ever been in the history of the country," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "That's the main issue, and Congress can't legislate a solution to that."
Some say no amount of federal intervention will completely snuff out catastrophic fires.
Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said no amount of forest thinnings, National Environmental Policy Act streamlining or additional funding will succeed in stopping a wind-blown fire, particularly during times of drought.
"Short of paving over, short of converting forests to nonvegetation, we're not going to eliminate fires from the ecosystem," he said. "When things are inevitable, you have to adapt to them."
While fire cannot be kept away from homes built in the wildland-urban interface, he said, homes can be made less vulnerable to ignition. Stahl suggested Congress require certain minimum building codes before granting mortgage interest tax deductions for homes built near fire zones.
The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., burned roughly 350 homes. But much of the vegetation surrounding them did not ignite, Stahl said. "We're building houses that are more flammable than the forests," he said.
Chris Topik, director of the Nature Conservancy's Restoring America's Forests program, said yesterday that while there are circumstances under which no amount of management will stop a fire's spread, thinning treatments do make a big difference.
Topik, who spent several years as a staff member on the House Appropriations Committee, credited the panel for increasing funding for the Forest Service to reduce hazardous fuels, but said he was concerned about a proposal to reduce state fire assistance by $16 million.
"I keep coming back to the same thing: that we are not investing enough," he said.