«TESTIMONY of LESLIE WELDON DEPUTY CHIEF, NATIONAL FOREST SYSTEM UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE FOREST SERVICE BEFORE THE HOUSE NATURAL ...»
DEPUTY CHIEF, NATIONAL FOREST SYSTEM
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
BEFORE THE HOUSE NATURAL RESOURCES COMMITTEE
SUBCOMMITTEE ON FEDERAL LANDSJULY 14, 2015 LAKE TAHOE RESTORATION ACT OF 2015 Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the U.S. Forest Service regarding the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2015. This discussion draft would amend the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act to enhance recreational opportunities, environmental restoration activities, and forest management activities in the Lake Tahoe Basin, and for other purposes. The Forest Service does not develop positions on discussion drafts, but based on our preliminary analysis, we have concerns with a number of provisions.
In February of 2010 of the 111th Congress, USDA Undersecretary Harris Sherman testified on a generally similar bill, S. 2724. At that time, the Undersecretary stated, “The Administration supports the goals of S. 2724, a bill that aligns with Secretary Vilsack’s national vision for America’s forests. We note that the bill addresses activities that can be addressed by existing authorities but underscores the unique status of Lake Tahoe. Secretary Vilsack’s vision acknowledges the need for a complete commitment to forest restoration through an all-lands approach.” The Forest Service is encouraged by many of the objectives that the draft seeks to accomplish.
We have included concerns with the draft that we would like to work with the Committee and your staffs to address. As a general matter, the Forest Service welcomes legislation that incentivizes collaboration and expands the toolset we can use to complete critical work on our nation’s forests, without overriding environmental laws. Lake Tahoe is a natural resource of special significance in the United States and this bill raises awareness of the pressing restoration needs and works to improve access to its world class recreational opportunities.
The Administration believes capacity constraints due to the present approach to budgeting for wildfire is the greatest impediment to further improving the health and resiliency of the nation’s forests. In fiscal year 1995, the Forest Service spent 16 percent of its budget on wildland firefighting. Today the agency spends nearly half of its budget in fire management activities and has seen a corresponding decline in non-fire staffing of 39 percent since 1998. This has enormous implications for how the agency carries out its mission, including taking funding from the very programs that help reduce catastrophic wildfire in the first place. Notwithstanding these challenges, throughan emphasis on collaboration, the Forest Service has consistently increased the number of acres treated annually to improve watershed resilience, forest health and hazardous fuels reduction, and timber production.
The frequency and intensity of wildfire, the rising cost of assets needed to deploy against the spread of wildfire, and the way that fire suppression is paid for constrain the agency’s capacity to realize additional gains through efficiencies and partnerships alone. The most important action Congress can make now in advancing the pace and scale of forest restoration is to fix the wildfire funding problem. The Bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, mirrored by a proposal in the President’s FY 2016 Budget, would immediately increase restoration objectives and increase the Forest Service’s capacity to plan and execute restoration projects—including work in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
In 2014, we exceeded our targets by producing 2.9 billion board feet of timber. Our timber harvest has increased 18 percent since 2008. The agency is achieving these results despite the fact that since 1998, National Forest System staffing was reduced by well over a third. We have achieved much of this increase by investing in collaborative approaches to forest restoration across the country as a way to develop better projects, work across larger landscapes, build public support for forest restoration and management, and reduce the risk of litigation. Dozens of collaborating groups across the country are enabling the Forest Service and our partners to get more work done. These collaborating groups, locally-led groups with representatives from local communities, environmental groups, forest industry, and others, are devising projects that address forest restoration, supply wood to local mills, conserve watersheds and provide a range of other benefits.
The health of the national forests and the communities we serve, including the Lake Tahoe Management Basin, are our shared priority. The Forest Service is accelerating restoration and management of the national forests through innovative approaches and increased collaboration, though it is clear that more work needs to be done. We welcome practical legislation that provides for expedient and responsible efficiencies in the execution of that work.
Forest Management Forests provide a broad range of values and benefits, including biodiversity, recreation, clean air and water, forest products, erosion control, soil renewal and more. Covering a third of the country’s landmass, they store and filter more than half of the nation’s water supply and absorb approximately 12 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. Our mission of sustaining the health, resilience and productivity of our nation’s forests is critically important to maintaining these values and benefits.
Restoring the health and resilience of our forests generates important values as well as economic benefits. Forests are an economic driver. In FY 2011, for example, the various activities on the National Forest System (NFS) contributed over $36 billion to America’s gross domestic product and supported nearly 450,000 jobs. Over 68 percent of this $36 billion contribution to the economy was associated with direct use of NFS lands and resources, including land use fees from privately provided recreation services – ski areas, outfitting and guiding, campground concessions; expenditures related to skiing, hiking, hunting, fishing, and other forms of outdoor recreation; the generation of energy, minerals, and traditional forest products; and livestock grazing.
Threats to Forest Health and Forests at Risk Our forest and grassland resources are at risk due to uncharacteristically severe wildfires, severe outbreaks of insects and disease, drought and invasive species, all exacerbated by a changing climate.
Many states have recently experienced the largest and/or most destructive fires in their history.
Two primary factors are contributing to larger and more destructive wildfires: climate and forest condition. Researchers have shown a 78-day increase in the western fire season since 1970, possibly due to a gradual rising of average spring and summer temperatures. Timing of snowmelt also may be a factor. If these patterns persist, scientists predict the western States will get hotter and drier by the end of the century. In such conditions, fire seasons will grow longer and fires will likely increase in number and intensity.
Forest condition also matters to fire activity. Decades of fire suppression and other factors have led to increases of fuels in many forest types across the country. Treating these acres through commercial thinning, hazardous fuels removal, re-introduction of low-intensity fires and other means can reduce fuel loads, provide forest products to local mills, provide jobs to local communities, and improve the ecological health of our forests.
Insects and disease have exacerbated the challenge. The area affected by an epidemic of mountain pine beetle in the West has reached 32 million acres on the national forests alone. In addition, invasive weeds such as kudzu, cheatgrass, leafy spurge, and spotted knapweed have infested about 6 million acres on the national forests and grasslands, an area the size of Massachusetts.
Fifty-eight million acres of national forests are at high or very high risk of severe wildfire. Out of the 58 million “high or very high” risk acres, we have identified approximately 11.3 million acres for highest priority treatment. These acres are in proximity to the wildland-urban interface or in priority watersheds or water sources, are in frequent fire return regimes, and not in roadless or wilderness area.
Efficiencies In recent years, the Forest Service has made great strides in the pursuit of efficiencies, and we are generally supportive of provisions that will help us pursue treatment at the landscape scale quickly, efficiently, and in a reasonable time to address problems before they can worsen. We look forward to continuing to work with you on the language of this bill to find efficiencies within the scope of important existing environmental laws.
An important way to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and management is to improve the efficiency of planning timber sales and stewardship contracts. We are working to identify and implement process improvements and efficiencies that help with increasing the pace and scale of restoration, while also engaging the public and developing well-planned projects.
For example, the Forest Service is developing new approaches to NEPA in the wake of catastrophic fires. On the Rim Fire, which burned 257,000 acres in the summer of 2013, the Stanislaus National Forest finalized both an Environmental Assessment for hazard tree removal and an Environmental Impact Statement for restoration and salvage in one year. The EIS projects will lessen the potential for future catastrophic fire by reducing the fuel loading and, in addition, capture some of the perishable economic commodity value of the fire-killed trees through timber salvage. The agency coordinated with the Council on Environmental Quality, which approved Alternative Arrangements to expedite the NEPA process. Overall, our partners and stakeholders appreciated the transparency while also enabling contracts to get awarded and work done on the ground.
The Forest Service is planning and implementing projects across larger areas, which increases NEPA efficiency, spreads costs across more acres, and provides a longer term and more certain timber supply for local mills. For example, the Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project on the Black Hills National Forest is implementing a landscape-scale approach across 200,000 acres for treating current and future pine beetle outbreaks.
The Agency has established additional categorical exclusions for restoration work, has expanded the use of focused environmental assessments, is using adaptive management to allow our decisions to last longer, and is better training employees to take advantage of new efficiencies.
The Forest Service is also developing efficiencies in NEPA through technology. For example, the Forest Service’s investments in using electronic applications provide considerable cost and time savings, contributing to an efficient NEPA process by reducing the administrative workload in reporting, records management, electronic document filing, and managing public mailing lists, while making it easier for the public to comment on Forest Service projects.
All of these efforts are aimed at becoming more proactive and efficient in protecting and restoring the nation’s natural resources, and supporting jobs and economic vitality for American communities. We are supportive of the provisions in this bill that streamline and enhance our ability to respond rapidly to restoration needs.
Promoting Collaboration The Forest Service generally supports legislation that incentivizes collaboration. Our emphasis on collaboration over the last decade has served us well. Simply put, collaboration works, and we have a number of collaborative projects and programs underway across the National Forest System that exemplify the success that can be achieved when diverse groups come together with a common cause of a healthy landscape.
Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program One way the Agency has supported local collaboration has been through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), and we appreciate the ongoing support from Congress for this innovative program. The CFLRP encourages collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority landscapes. The program currently supports 23 large-scale projects with 10-year funding to implement priority restoration work on National Forest System lands while engaging local communities and leveraging partner resources through collaboration, implementation, and monitoring.
The CFLR program is on track to meeting its goals over its ten year timeframe, making substantial strides in the first five years to promote forest health and resilience and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. In the five years since initial program implementation, the 23 projects collectively have treated over 1.45 million acres to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire, over 84,570 acres to improve forest health, over 1.33 million acres to improve wildlife habitat, and over 73,600 acres to eradicate noxious weeds and invasive plants. In addition, these projects have exceeded their timber output goals, producing nearly 1.3 billion board feet.
These collaborative projects help rural communities by creating and maintaining jobs. Between 2011 and 2014 these projects generated $661 million in local labor income and an average of 4,360 jobs per year. The FY 2016 President’s Budget for the Forest Service includes a proposal to increase funding authority for the program from $40 million to eventually $80 million, with funding in FY 2016 requested at $60 million. The funding increase will allow us to pursue up to 10 additional projects. Accordingly, the budget proposes extending authority for the program through 2024 to allow for full completion of new projects.