House forest panel leaders Walden, Udall debate 'Healthy Forests,' and more ...

Will the Healthy Forests Act reduce wildfires that threaten property? Is Congress allocating enough money for wildfire prevention? Is the public being excluded from comment on key forest management issues? House Forest Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden and ranking member Tom Udall join OnPoint for a lively and informed discussion on the status of America's forest management.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. With us today is Congressman Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon and chairman of the House Resources Forest Subcommittee. Also with us today is Congressman Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico and a ranking member on that panel. And finally with us is reporter Dan Berman with Greenwire and E&E Daily. Congressmen thanks for joining us today.

Rep. Greg Walden: Good to be with you.

Rep. Tom Udall: Great to be with you today.

Brian Stempeck: Congressman Walden I'd like to start with you. The governor of Montana said last week, he asked the Pentagon to pull off some National Guards troops because they're predicting a pretty bad wildfire season out there. We're also hearing about bad wildfire forecasts in the Northwest, in your area. A lot of people are saying that this is pretty good evidence that the Healthy Forest Initiative isn't really working. It's been in effect for a while now and we're seeing a lot more, kind of the same wildfire forecasts that we always see. What's your response to that?

Rep. Greg Walden: Well, that's a bit preposterous. First of all, if you want to measure it against time, last year after the Healthy Forest Restoration Act passed, we had the least fires in the lower 48 we've had. Now let's face it, that was mostly because of Mother Nature and rain. The act's only been in law about a year, year and a half. We've got a long way to go and remember it only covers 20 million of the 190 million acres that need treatment. So that's the first thing. Second, in terms of military help on fighting fires, which I know the governor's concerned about, in the hearing we just had with Undersecretary Mark Rey I asked that question. What do we do while we have the resources? He says we've got two battalions trained in the military to help out if needed. Now states may need additional help. That will vary state to state. I think the Healthy Forest Restoration Act is working. They've already treated a million acres in 2005. They did 4.3 million acres last year and you have more than 600 communities that have developed their own wildfire protection plans in the last year, year and a half since the act passed. Gave good community involvement and, I think, a good opportunity to make this new law really work.

Brian Stempeck: Congressman Udall what's your take on how it's going, the effects so far?

Rep. Tom Udall: I think that first of all, we've got to realize that Healthy Forest has only been in effect for a year, year and a half and so we can't rush to judgment on what the results are. But the crucial factor in my mind is how you target the urban-wildland interface for thinning. I was always a proponent of setting a target that was much higher, 70 percent or something in that range. Healthy Forest is lower. I think many of the areas that they're thinning, if you went out and evaluated the acreage that Greg's talking about, aren't in the crucial areas. So I would say they haven't focused in the way they should and they should really come in and take a comprehensive look. I think we may see some of the other government agencies, the GAO and others, take a look at these kinds of things as we move down the road.

Rep. Greg Walden: And we'll be watching that, if I could just say, in terms of where the work's being done. Now the undersecretary in our hearing said upwards of two thirds of the areas being treated are in the wildland-urban interface. Other data indicates it's as much as 58 percent. So Tom's right, we need to make sure our communities are safe and protected, but there are also some endangered species habitats and watersheds that may be away from the wildland-urban interface that need help too.

Rep. Tom Udall: The other thing is, is when we use this term urban-wildland interface, it's the definition and Greg --

Brian Stempeck: This is referring to areas around communities, basically --

Rep. Tom Udall: These are the communities, the watersheds, these kinds of crucial areas and the definition is so broad that I have a dispute there with the act. I mean, I think it could be narrowed and we could really focus in on the crucial areas where you're talking about loss of property, loss of lives, those kinds of threats.

Rep. Greg Walden: But, you see, that's why we allowed communities to help design what they viewed was the wildland-urban interface in their communities. So we figured one size fits all from the federal level doesn't work as well as getting collaborative community involvement, which is what I think you'll see with the 600 plans that are already in place, a hundred or nearly a hundred out of my own state.

Rep. Tom Udall: I don't have any problem with community involvement, it's the Forest Service that tends to head off in some directions that we might not like them to be.

Dan Berman: Well, Congressman Udall, not all fires are near communities and many of the fires in Alaska, for instance, even though they weren't specifically near communities caused tremendous problems in the Fairbanks area, for example, with smoke and haze and health effects there. Don't you have to treat some of the areas outside of the communities as well?

Rep. Tom Udall: Well, it depends on the area, but I think that we have a forest system that because we've been fighting fires is not used to fire, and fire is very much a part of the ecosystem. It's something that should be there. Many of these fires we should be letting them burn, if in fact they're not threatening property or lives and they're not in that crucial urban-wildland interface area. So that's the real issue, I think, is can the Forest Service get back to fire adapted landscapes and can they move us in that direction so we can protect overall ecological health and take care of communities?

Dan Berman: Well last month the GAO said, in a kind of first review of the Healthy Forest Initiative, that the administration needs to develop a long-term cohesive plan to fight wildfires, kind of beyond Healthy Forest. What would you like to see in that plan? Mark Rey said that they would have something kind of by the beginning of next year to present the Congress.

Rep. Greg Walden: Yeah, clearly we need to have a broader look and the Forest Service needs to be able to do more inventory and pull together their planning process a little better, the GAO indicated. I also think we need to look at what we do after a fire, in terms of adaptive management techniques and I've asked the GAO to look at reforestation issues. You know, in a post-timber harvest environment there's a requirement to go in and replant, for example. In a post-fire environment there is no requirement for replanting, and I think to get stability in watersheds and hillsides we should get in sooner and replant quicker. You know you raise the issue about fire in Alaska, I actually spent a year up there in college, around the Fairbanks area, and it's such a different environment up there with the tundra and how you don't fight fire in many cases because you do more damage if you scrape the soil and expose it. It begins to thaw, you get these deep ruts and all kinds of problems, but the smoke is a killer. We've seen that in my district and in others around urban areas where it will sink into the communities. You have these terrible air shed problems that require people to be indoors. So your comments about the need to fight fire and deal with the forest health issues outside the urban areas that I think is a real valid one.

Dan Berman: Congressman Udall?

Rep. Tom Udall: Well we have a national fire plan and I think we need to take a look at how it's working, how we're moving down the road, and I think a lot of us would have contributions as we do that. I think that when it comes to the hearings of the forest subcommittee you're going to see a lot of activity, I hope, in terms of taking a look at the big picture like Greg's talking about.

Rep. Greg Walden: We're going to hold them accountable for everything. Tom and I, I don't think, have a disagreement there. That our forest could be better managed than they're being managed today. We need to make sure we're on top of the fire issues, but also the long-term health issues of the forests. That's the other part of our title.

Brian Stempeck: Let's talk about the budget for a minute. I know both of you, you've both been critical of the president's budget request for kind of undercutting the state and private forestry account at the Forest Service. At the same time the White House is trying to half the deficit right now and clearly some programs at Interior, the Forest Service are going to need to be cut. If not state and private forestry, what programs are going to need to be cut?

Rep. Tom Udall: Well, I think when it comes to forests and wildland fires in the West we need to put the money there to protect communities and to protect property and if we don't do that there are going to be devastating consequences. So I don't, when it comes to state and private forestry, this 26 percent cut, I don't think we should be cutting at that level. I think the funding level of the last year, we should be up at that and we should be taking a look as we move along, are there threats? Are there problems? And it may need additional resources. So I don't think this is an area to be cutting.

Dan Berman: Congressman Walden how do you respond to that? We are trying to address the deficit right now. The White House is making that a top priority. How then do you look at the Forest Service?

Rep. Greg Walden: You know, the problem we have is a broader one than just the Forest Service and that is we always go at the things we have discretion to go after in the budget, which is a very small part of the federal budget. The problem we are seeing is over time if we ignore all the mandatory spending in the other areas we squish these other agencies down and try and take all the hide off of them to solve other problems. We have an obligation to America's forests and Tom's right, cutting the community involvement in that side of the budget, I disagree with as well. So our job's going to be, yes we'll be tasked with finding some reductions. We need to be smart about it, and I think there'll be ways to adjust the budget that doesn't whack the community forests and partnerships we have at that level. Now having said that, remember in the last five years we've quadrupled the federal funding for hazardous fuels reduction. This administration has done a lot in that respect. So we've really ramped up the spending in many areas and including the national fire plan that goes back, I think, clear to the Clinton administration, where we finally got some investments. Moreover, setting aside money in the budget in the last two cycles, I don't know if we'll get it done this time, but there's a reserve carried forward to fight, to pay the costs of fighting fire rather than robbing from these other accounts. So we've made some good progress. We'll tweak this thing and try and do our best.

Rep. Tom Udall: Well, we have ramped up, but we're nowhere near the target in the Healthy Forest Act.

Dan Berman: The target is $760 million.

Rep. Tom Udall: Seven hundred and sixty million, we're much below that and I think every dollar that we can spend in terms of thinning and getting the forest in a healthy situation, is going to be, save us a lot of dollars in the long run. So this is something that you can't just throw money at it, you have to do it wisely, but clearly, we need to focus on the fuel reduction area.

Rep. Greg Walden: Absolutely, absolutely no question about it.

Dan Berman: Well Mark Rey, on this program and I know he said it several times on the Hill over the past month and a half, said that last year, even though the request was well below the $760 million, Congress still cut from the administration's request. Kind of sending a mixed message that even though this, I know you two say that hazardous fuels reduction is important, well Congress is still reducing the amount allocated to it. Can you respond to that?

Rep. Greg Walden: I thought actually we had more than funding what was necessary at that time, but what's changing is as a result of the passage of Healthy Forest Restoration Act, you now have 600 community wildfire plans in place ready to go to prod the Forest Service and BLM to do certain things in communities. My point is the demand level for this kind of work, the expedited process for this kind of work, is going to mean an additional pressure for more money to do this kind of work. So that's going to be our challenge, is to fund the projects now that are coming into the pipeline that, I think, over time will far exceed the funding. Now the other issue is, and I'm glad that Tom supports HFRA and all, because we also have this artificial cap limiting Healthy Forest Restoration Act's acreage treatment to 20 million acres, which I think, over time, we're going to exceed, especially if we are doing 4 to 4-and-a-half million acres a year. Now I also want to know, what are those acres? Are they acres that are being retreated and retreated? Where are they being done? Is this sort of paper treatment or is it real treatment and what effect is it having in the communities?

Dan Berman: And that 20 million acres only refers to treatments done with the authority under --

Rep. Greg Walden: Right.

Dan Berman: Under the Healthy Forest Act. I mean, they can treat other acres --

Rep. Greg Walden: They can, but without the expedited procedures. The litigation, the appeals process, we know from other General Accountability Office findings indicates that it takes forever and costs a lot. And that money needs to be on the ground.

Brian Stempeck: Congressman Udall, we've seen that Congress has been able to get Healthy Forest Initiative through. Now the White House is starting to turn to some of its more, things it can do administratively. You're talking about the roadless rule perhaps coming out later this spring, the forest planning rules that came out in December. What do you see as the role, your role right now and the role of Congress, when the White House is turning more to things they can do without you?

Rep. Tom Udall: I think that we should be very aggressive in terms of oversight. I think most of the areas across government, even outside of forests, you can have the accusation that Congress does not do enough oversight. We're not focused on the minutia of what's going on in the agencies and some of the broad policy issues too. So I would just encourage, Greg and I, and I think he's pretty good at this, of saying, let's see what the agencies are doing in various areas and let's get them to come up and report as they're moving along in these areas. There may then be a role for us legislatively, I think.

Rep. Greg Walden: Now I know we're not supposed to come on a show like this and agree, but we do. It's about accountability, and I don't care who's in charge of the agency, we're going to hold them accountable as long as I'm chairman of the committee. Now having said that, I think what they're proposing on changing how we do forest planning, the planning regs, is very inventive and positive. They're using ISO 14000 standards, which are internationally recognized for adaptive forest management, environmental management standards that create a public collaborative approach going in and hopefully save us money going out. Right now it takes 7-and-a-half years to write a 15-year forest management plan, so you're halfway through the plan before you ever get it finished and it costs over $7 million. We have 92 plans ahead of us to write, which could cost $690 million just to do the planning if we don't change how it's done. Somehow we've got to cut through that, provide for collaborative and public involvement in the planning process, but measure accountability by results. Let's see what the outcome is in these forest management plans.

Dan Berman: Well Congressman Udall, I think someone said that the forest planning rule is a bit too creative and a bit too inventive, especially in limiting environmental reviews of the plans as they're developed. What is your response to that? Do you feel that the administration's answer to everything is, essentially, to cut out the environmental review?

Rep. Tom Udall: Well clearly when you're talking about forest planning there's a lot of room for improvement. But the problem that I have is this categorical exclusion for forest management plans under the NFMA regulations, these forest planning regulations, because what you're doing there is basically saying to the public you don't have a right to participate in forest planning and NEPA is the hook to get the public in. So if you're saying that we're going to categorically exclude forest planning I've got a real problem with that. I hope that this is an area that as we move along we can do some oversight in also because we've got to hold this agency accountable.

Rep. Greg Walden: And we will and then this may be where we have a little disagreement. We'll still hold them accountable. We'll get to the bottom of these issues. But in the way that categorical exclusions have been used to date, basically what they say is we've already studied an identical area or a very similar area. We've already done the research. We know this one, this coffee cup looks exactly like that coffee cup, he has water, we have coffee, but it's basically and fundamentally the same. We know what the effects are, and we don't have to go through an enormous and expensive planning process to tell you that that's a black coffee cup.

Dan Berman: But what about limiting the environmental reviews of the forest plan itself? Mark Rey said that they determined a forest plan, when they reviewed it, doesn't have any environmental effects, it's the actual actions afterwards.

Rep. Greg Walden: Actions on the ground, right.

Dan Berman: But by not having the NEPA review of the plan, you're limiting public input from the start.

Rep. Greg Walden: Well, the problem we have now is it takes 7-and-a-half years to do a 10 to 15 year plan. We're putting all the money into the planning, the appeals and all that, that should be better spent, and you've heard us talk about the need for this additional funding to enact the Healthy Forest Restoration Act to make our communities and watersheds safer and all. We're blowing so much money right now. I think you can come to a better standard. Now out in the Northwest they're looking it's a new standards on the Mount Hood and Siuslaw National Forest. To look at some of the so-called green standards for timber harvest practices that environmental groups have endorsed and embraced. You know, Home Depot and other companies will certify that the wood they have is harvested in a certain way. They're looking at applying those standards to the national forests as a test. I think these are techniques we need to look at that other areas are adopting, international standards that are being adopted and I happen to think ISO 14000 is a pretty good standard.

Rep. Tom Udall: The big reform in the 1970s for our national forests was to force the Forest Service to come up with overall plans. So really what you're doing now, with these national forest planning rules, is backing out of that. That was a major reform forcing them to come up with plans. So you're cutting out the public and I have a big disagreement with that.

Brian Stempeck: All right. We're out of time, so we're going to let that be the last word for today. I'd like to thank both of our guests today, Congressmen Greg Walden and Tom Udall, the two top members of House Resources Forest Subcommittee. Also Dan Berman, reporter with Greenwire and E&E Daily. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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