Two leading senators last week called upon the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to step up their game to improve the condition of the nation’s forests and address wildfire problems.
Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and ranking member John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, are co-sponsors of SB 4904, the Promoting Effective Forest Management Act of 2022, which they tout as holding the two public lands management agencies accountable. Their remarks came during a Sept. 29 hearing before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources at which not just their bill but SB 4833 — the Senate version of the Save Our Sequoias Act— and 10 other bills dealing with forest and wildfire issues were the subject.
With John Crockett, associate deputy chief, state and private forestry, representing the Forest Service and Jeff Rupert, director of the Office of Wildland Fire for the Department of the Interior in attendance, Manchin and Barrasso expressed disappointment with what each described as little return on financial investments in the agencies.
Noting that the committee previously concluded that “promoting low density forest through mechanical thinning treatments — prescribed fire and other methods — will help clear out the excess growth and make way for healthier trees that can withstand fire and other disturbances,” Manchin said. Congress has provided record levels of funding with little result.
He said more than $10 billion was appropriated to help the federal agencies achieve the paradigm shift.
“However, despite this unprecedented level of funding — and new authorities that Congress has provided — I understand the Forest Service only treated 8 percent more acres this year — 8 percent,” he said. “I also understand that the Forest Service is on track to have its third straight year of declining timber sales.”
Barrasso expressed concern about a recent NBC News report that claimed that the Forest Service is overstating its wild land fire-prevention progress to Congress. He was also critical of new federal policy regarding the protection of old-growth forests put in place by executive order in April. He called the Biden Administration’s order a destructive effort “to restrict responsible management of mature forest.”
“We’ve essentially created a perfect storm and, as a result, we have witnessed an increase in the occurrence of the mega fires and communities across the West are suffering from tragic loss of life and property,” Manchin said as he opened the hearing. “While agency leaders have talked about correcting this course for some time, it seems that with each passing decade, we’re slipping further behind.”
The senators described elements of SB 4904 that they believe will make a difference, including — as Barrasso said — holding agencies “accountable for the results that they themselves have told us that they must achieve.”
Crockett told the committee that funding provided has been a “good down payment” on a 10-year work plan.
Save Our Sequoias bills
Among bills covered by the hearing is the Senate version of the Save Our Sequoias bill.
California’s senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, both Democrats, introduced SB 4833 on Sept. 13. The bill is similar — but with significant differences — from a bill with the same name introduced as HR 8168 by Reps. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Scott Peters, D-San Diego, on June 22.
The McCarthy bill garnered bipartisan support in the House with Peters and 49 others signing on as co-sponsors. But it also drew criticism from a number of environmental organizations.
Save the Redwoods League and The Nature Conservancy seem to support the bill, but the House version was widely criticized by 80 or so organizations, including Kern County-based Sequoia ForestKeeper.
An August article in Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, summed up concerns: “The draft legislation waives a raft of federal environmental laws to speed up thinning and fuel reduction efforts.”
Notably, the Senate version omits language that assessments of need for work in the groves “shall not be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969,” which appeared in the House version.
The Senate version of the bill is longer. It includes a statement that options and best practices for conducting protection projects are not to cause incidental taking of threatened or endangered species.
Also found in the Senate version are long sections about emergency determinations and fire regimes not included in the House version.
“While USDA has concerns with several aspects of the legislation as written,” Crockett said, “we appreciate the intent of the Save Our Sequoias Act and look forward to continued discussions with the committee and bill sponsors on ways to expedite this important work.”
Feinstein and Padilla are not members of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and they were not present for the hearing. But Feinstein later submitted comments on their bill.
“Sequoias were long considered nearly immune to the effects of wildfires, but unfortunately, devastating fires in recent years have overwhelmed even their potent defenses,” she said. “Officials have estimated that 20 percent of all mature giant sequoias have been lost just since 2020. Scientific research has additionally suggested that without significant action, another 20 percent could be lost in the next three years.”
She said the Save our Sequoias Act would codify the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition, an existing group of public land managers with jurisdiction over sequoia groves, and require it to develop a strategy to make sequoia groves more resilient to wildfire. It would provide statutory support for the emergency declaration that is currently expediting sequoia wildfire resilience projects.
“Federal agencies should not be reliant on emergency authorities ... to implement necessary wildfire resilience projects that will become more common in the future,” the senator said. “To that end, our bill makes narrow, targeted adjustments to authorize federal agencies to implement sequoia protection projects in the highest wildfire-risk areas. It also authorizes the federal agencies to engage with the local community to conduct these projects, from tree nurseries and wood product companies to local and tribal governments.”
Both the House and Senate versions of the proposed legislation would authorize appropriations — $10 million in FY 2024, $25 million in FY 2025, $30 million each in years 2026 through 2028 and $40 million each in years 2029 through 2033.
Call for a markup
Moving the Save Our Sequoias Act forward will require further action. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, expressed enthusiasm for such an action after speaking reverently about giant sequoias.
“This fire that happened this summer in the giant sequoias, if that didn’t break a person’s heart, they are a very unfeeling person,” Risch said. “The giant sequoias ... are known all over the world. The only more famous patch is the Cedars of Lebanon. And the only reason they’re famous is because they’re included in the Bible. Had the authors of the Bible known about the sequoias, they’d have included, at least a head nod to them, also.
“But look, when we can even protect a national heritage like the giant sequoias, it’s really time to take a look at what we’re doing when it comes to fire suppression,” Risch continued. “And ... it’s getting worse every year, we all sit here, we wring our hands about it, we pass all these laws, and yet, it just ... continues to get worse.”
Later, he referred to possible future action — a markup (the process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend and rewrite proposed legislation).
“I hope we’re gonna take a markup on one of these (bills) ... and actually scrutinize these not for messaging, but for real, actual work on the ground,” the senator said.