WILDFIRES:

Climate change link to fires ignites Senate committee

Climate change crept into the discussion of fire management at a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing yesterday, despite Republicans' tiptoeing around the issue.

As fires like the voracious Wallow Fire spread throughout the Southwest, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior are being pressed to offer solutions.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, one of the witnesses present at the hearing, cited research from within the service to link fires and climate change.

"Throughout the country, we're seeing longer fire seasons, and we're seeing snowpacks that, on average, are disappearing a little earlier every spring," he said, as well as devastating droughts. As a result, fire seasons have lengthened by more than 30 days, on average.

"Our scientists believe this is due to a change in climate," said Tidwell.

Tidwell's testimony was prompted by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who used the positive response to chide committee members into considering climate change as one of the committee's key issues.

"I would just like to underscore that for members of our body, when we have discussions about the impact of climate change, the cost of this," he said. "It would be all well and good for members to understand that this is related to climate change, and how important it is for us to address and take national action to reduce our carbon emissions."

1.2 million acres are burning

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) questioned Franken's authority, given his lack of a degree in fire science or natural resources. Climate change proponents, he added, are in part to blame for the overabundance of wood that has served as fuel for fires.

"Generally, the people who talk about climate change and wring their hands about the fires are the exact same people that ... are the first ones to file a suit to stop from removing that fuel," said Risch, referring to lawsuits from environmental groups that followed the passage of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. The act, signed in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush, was criticized for allowing the timber industry to operate without filing environmental impact statements.

Since then, the idea of fuel treatments, the partial removal of wood or other vegetation throughout an area likely to ignite easily, has gained greater acceptance as a practice in managing forests. An excess of biomass -- not climate change -- is the catalyst for the catastrophic fires of the last decade, argued Risch.

According to the daily fire site report released by the National Interagency Fire Center, 1.2 million acres is burning in the United States, nearly two-thirds of it in the Southwest.

Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) introduced discussion on several funding and management initiatives from U.S. public lands agencies. These include the "FLAME Act" to create a framework for budgeting resources during the fire season, and research into fuel treatments.

Bingaman tied many of this year's natural disasters to climate change in his opening address, citing the recent "America's Climate Choices" report from the National Academy of Sciences.

"Since climate change will continue into the future, we can expect the incidences of severe weather and the further drying out of the already arid regions of the West to continue," he said.

Forest Service policies frustrate Murkowski

However, climate change was not the focus of members' disapproval of current fire management. Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was quick to point to poor management and slow policy implementation as the primary factor for out-of-control fires, caused by recent cuts to the Forest Service budget as well as a strategy of tackling smaller areas rather than larger projects. Murkowski criticized the Forest Service for not implementing the Healthy Forest Restoration Act to its fullest extent. Less than a third of the authorized projects were ever completed, according to Murkowski.

"We're not seeing much as a consequence of that; there's little to show for it," she said. "I want to see more healthy forests restoration projects; I want to see more large-scale projects -- within this decade."

"As I look back on all of the lost opportunities of the last 10 years, none pains me more than the failure of our land management agencies to use those authorities that Congress has provided," she added.

Murkowski's requests are "unrealistic," said Roger Sedjo, director of forest economics and policy at Resources for the Future.

"There's nowhere near enough funding in the Healthy Forest Act to fund all of the national forests," he said. The committee also neglected to account for the type of forests in the Southwest -- pine. Unable to grow in shade, and with cones whose seeds are coaxed out with the heat of fire, pine trees evolved to rely on seasonal fires to survive.

"Basically, if you have pine forests, they're going to burn," said Sedjo. "I think [the Forest Service] is dealing with it better and better with time," he continued. "It's not so much a fault of managed maintenance; it's in the fact that fires are a part of many natural systems."