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Crisis In Our National Forests

Congressman McClintock, Chairman of the Federal Lands Subcommittee, held a hearing on March 22, 2016 on “Examining the Spending Priorities and Missions of the Forest Service in the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Proposal.” Witnesses included U.S. Forest Chief Thomas Tidwell.

Chairman McClintock’s Opening Statement:

Today the Subcommittee on Federal Lands meets to review the President’s proposed budget for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2017.

We meet at a time of crisis for our national forests.  They are dying.

In my district that comprises the Sierra Nevada, more than 1,000 square miles of forest have been destroyed by catastrophic wild fire in the last three years.  Those acres not destroyed by fire are now falling victim to disease and pestilence.  It is estimated that 85 percent of the pine tree stock in the Sierra National Forest is dead or dying.

Forty years ago, Congress began imposing volumes of highly restrictive environmental laws with the promise they would improve the environmental health of our forests.  Those laws, and the regulations and litigation that followed them, has made active management of the forests virtually impossible.  The harvest of excess timber out of those forests has plummeted by 80 percent in the intervening years.

California’s national forests are now choked with an average of 266 trees per acre on a landscape that historically sustained 20 to 100 trees per acre. In the lower elevations of the Tahoe Basin, we have four times the normal density of vegetation.

The Forest Service itself estimates 40 million dead trees on federal lands in California last year, with an additional 29 million dying.

Trees that once had room to grow healthy and strong now fight for their lives against other trees fighting for the same ground.  With that stage set, the drought pushed us past a tipping point.

After 40 years of these laws imposed with the specific promise to improve the environmental health of our forests, I believe we are entitled to ask, “How is the environmental health of our forests doing?”

The answer is damning.   These laws and the ideologues who have administered them have not only destroyed local mountain economies that once thrived on the commercial activity of harvesting excess timber, they have devastated the forest environment.

Ironically, while the National Forests have been devastated, the private lands not subject to these policies are thriving.  I have seen time and again in my own district – the private lands are properly thinned and maintained; they have proven resistant to forest fire; and when they have suffered damage, owners have quickly salvaged and replanted.

Inexplicably, at a time when the Forest Service has utterly failed to responsibly manage our forests, it seeks massive increases in funding to acquire still more forest land.  That means transferring land from private hands, where it has been well managed, to the federal government that has spectacularly failed in its land management responsibilities.

The administration envisions expansion of Secure Rural Schools as a “tool to strengthen economic opportunities for rural communities.”  Secure Rural Schools does not strengthen economic opportunities – rather it compensates rural communities for pennies on the dollar what they lost from the economic activities that these policies destroyed.

NFS management points out that fire suppression has become its greatest expense.  The House addressed this last year in the Resilient Forests Act of 2015 that now languishes in the Senate.

The fact is fire expenses will grow every year until we restore sound forest management practices to our national forests and that in turn will require very different policies than those presented by the forest service today.

These laws not only prevent us from timely and economical removal of excess timber, they even prevent us from salvaging fire-killed timber and replanting.  Millions of dead trees on thousands of square miles of the Sierra alone must be removed and the acreage replanted.  Yet environmental restrictions make even salvage cost prohibitive.

Even without these laws, it will cost an estimated $1,600 per acre to remove dead wood and replant the acreage already destroyed.  This is where our funds should be going – not to acquiring still more land to mismanage.

Removing commercially viable excess timber before it can burn should yield about $300 of direct federal revenues per acre per year if the forests were properly managed.  If directed toward reclamation, we could have healthy forests again in a matter of years.

All that stands in the way is failed public policy.  This congress stands to change that policy.  And I would respectfully counsel this administration to lead, follow or get out of the way.