WASHINGTON – Proponents of a bill to let ranchers and loggers operate more freely on federal land said Thursday that changes are needed to give the U.S. Forest Service help clearing forests before wildfires can break out.
“We have to start something or we are going to suffer consequences,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, who introduced the bill that was co-sponsored by 13 others, including four other members of Arizona’s congressional delegation.
The Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act of 2013 would allow greater grazing and timber-harvesting on federal lands, and could let state officials manage the lands with federal approval, all in the name of clearing growth that could fuel a wildfire.
Among the bill‘s provisions is a limit on the time the government can take to study the environmental impact of ranching and logging projects on lands deemed at high-risk of wildfire. If the government failed to meet the deadline, the projects could proceed.
But critics said the public and private partnerships envisioned in the bill do not necessarily eliminate work for the Forest Service, and could open the door to environmentally harmful use of the land.
“It still doesn’t eliminate the things we need to do to ensure it’s a good project,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in testimony to the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.
The Wilderness Society said in a prepared statement that the bill would “threaten effective management and preservation of America’s public lands.”
It called the bill’s language too vague, saying it could allow any type of project on any piece of land. That would open the door for commercial logging in endangered species habitat, the statement said, and could spread highly flammable cheat grass through cattle grazing.
But the bill’s backers said something needs to be done.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said she supports environmental impact assessments, but that the Forest Service is underfunded, understaffed and takes years to finish its research.
Ranchers and loggers who use the land have great interest in preserving the forest because that is their livelihood, Martin said. But they have lost the ability to be stewards of the land since the Forest Service restricted areas where cattle could graze and prohibited loggers from cutting younger trees.
“The Forest Service fenced up the land and now immediately you are overgrazing in 30 days. You wind up with people that don’t pay attention,” Martin said.
“It’s a whole different way of managing land. If you have to live off of it, or if you are just living on it,” she said.
The Forest Service – responsible for 193 million acres of forest and capable of restoring 4 million acres of damaged land per year – needs help caring for the forests while ranchers need to prevent their grazing lands from burning, said Andy Groseta, public lands council for Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association. But he said the current lengthy environmental review process does not allow either.
“In the meantime, a wildfire breaks out,” Groseta said of the process that can sometimes take years. “There’s no reason for me to abuse the land.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, agreed that something must be done to address the “crisis in our forest.”
“There are wildfires burning now and more on the horizon this summer,” he said.
But Grijalva said he is concerned at the prospect of commercial loggers operating in national forests without proper review or public input.
Gosar counters that his bill is crafted to require that any forest-clearing project meet environmental standards, and notes that the review deadline only applies on lands the Forest Service designates “high risk” for wildfires.
“You’re going to lose the asset, so why not save the asset?” he asked. “You’ve always got to look at environmental concerns, but this isn’t rocket science.”