«TESTIMONY of LESLIE WELDON DEPUTY CHIEF, NATIONAL FOREST SYSTEM UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE FOREST SERVICE BEFORE THE HOUSE NATURAL ...»
These collaboratives, and dozens of similar efforts (such as the Two Chiefs’ Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership that is described below), help maintain a robust forest industry with benefits flowing not only to local communities, but also to the Forest Service itself as the agency relies on local forest contractors and mills to provide the workforce to undertake a variety of restoration activities. A 2011 Forest Service study found that through work on National Forest System lands, the forest products industry supports about 42,000 jobs and contributes around $2.7 billion to America’s gross domestic product each year.
Two Chiefs’ Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership Our restoration efforts are not just confined to public lands. Recognizing that fire, insects, disease, wildlife and watersheds do not respect property lines, the Forest Service and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are combining resources to expand our efforts across both public and private land. In FY 2014, Secretary Vilsack announced a multi-year partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to improve the health and resiliency of forest ecosystems where public and private lands meet across the nation. The Forest Service and NRCS Chiefs’ Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership program aims to reduce wildfire threats to communities and landowners, protect water quality and supply, and improve wildlife habitat for at-risk species. By leveraging technical and financial resources and coordinating activities on adjacent public and private lands, conservation work by NRCS and the Forest Service will be more efficient and effective in these watersheds.
In FY 2014, the Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership invested $30 million in 13 projects in 12 states across the country. The priority projects selected for FY 2014 are continuing in FY 2015. $27 million will be provided to continue work on these projects in 2015. Fifteen additional projects were selected in FY 2015 totaling $10 million. The 2015 projects are located where private and public lands meet, and where restoration objectives cross ownership boundaries.
Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2015 We are encouraged to see the emphasis in the discussion draft on forest management practices across property boundaries, including hazardous fuels treatments and invasive species monitoring. However, and importantly, USDA has serious concerns with a number of provisions.
In Section 4 of the draft it is not clear what purpose would be served by adding the new subsection addressing “coordination” in forest management activities to the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act. It is not clear whether and how this provision would change the agency’s existing obligations and/or practices. The USDA already solicits and considers input from a broad range of federal agencies, state and local entities, and the public, to the extent that is warranted in connection with a particular environmental review.
As a further example, Section 4 provides that the traditional multiple-use paradigm need not be followed if the USDA determines that such management “would excessively increase the cost of a program in relation to the additional benefits.” We are concerned that the standards in the statute are vague and will be difficult to implement. We are also concerned that the required analysis may be inconsistent with obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other statutes. The ambiguities may lead to more challenges to important agency projects, reducing, rather than increasing, overall efficiency.
While we appreciate the intent to increase agency flexibility by expanding the scope of available categorical exclusions in Section 4, we are concerned that the scope is too broad. The draft, which would apply to all forest management activities conducted for the purpose of managing hazardous fuels, no matter the scope of the work, is overbroad and negates the important environmental review (informed by public input as appropriate) that is necessary for extraordinary circumstances.
Likewise, we have concerns about Section 4’s mandatory arbitration provision, which would apply to all forest management activities conducted for the purpose of managing hazardous fuels.
For example, while the provision authorizes challenge and intervention by individuals who sought administrative review or who submitted comments during the NEPA process, we would not necessarily solicit public comment before completing review under a categorical exclusion or provide for administrative review. Also, it is not clear to us how it would serve the public interest to require an arbitrator to select either the agency’s proposal or one offered by an objector or intervenor, depending upon which proposal best meets the purpose and need. The Department is open to pilot arbitration on a trial basis, but we are concerned with arbitration that is mandatory and so broad.
We would like to work with the Committee on this draft to address our concerns, including those related to the arbitration provision and the mandatory use of an environmental review process.
Compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) is important to our agency planning and decision-making given the ecological values of the area and the extensive work invested in collaboratively addressing the high public interest in maintaining them. We are supportive of the work that the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit recently completed under their land management plan, and recommend that the management strategies outlined by that extensive collaborative effort are prioritized.
We also want to emphasize the foundational role the National Forest System serves in providing high-quality outdoor recreational opportunities for all Americans. The 193 million acres of land the Forest Service manages in the public trust are now and always have been where people across the country go to enjoy mountain biking, skiing, world-class hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting, as well as nearly every other variety of healthy outdoor activity. Spending by visitors engaging in recreation activities supports more jobs and economic output than any other activity on the National Forest System. In 2012, outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands supported approximately 190,000 jobs and contributed about $13 billion to the Nation’s gross domestic product.
The Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2015 draft appears intended to improve access to some of these world class recreation opportunities, enhance iconic recreation settings and scenic character, and showcase one of a kind experiences that strengthen the Tahoe Basin’s connections to communities and generate millions of dollars to local and state GDP, as well as thousands of jobs for the Lake Tahoe Basin economy. Contemporary strategies that assure adequate funding for maintenance and enrichment of the Basin’s special places are essential for promoting a sustainable recreation economy, achieving high-quality examples of sustainable recreation
management that include:
Collaborative strategies to develop an integrated system of sustainable trails and spectrum of trail experiences;
Increased access for youth, young adults and veterans to do meaningful work on public lands by expanding the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21 CSC);
Expanded field ranger staffing and training initiatives to restore and adapt recreation settings, e.g., scenic character enhancement through selective landscape treatments, and improving mitigation of resource impacts from issues such as unmanaged recreation, development, urban sprawl, fire and climate change.
The draft provides land acquisition authority that would streamline the processes for our Agency and partnering land owners. We are encouraged by the discretion for conveyance of urban lots, which has the potential to enhance our efficiency. We are also supportive of provisions that provide for the retention of special use fees, which enhance our ability to provide recreational opportunities. The provisions for exchange of lands between the Secretary and the State of California have potential to improve management capabilities for both entities; we appreciate the discretion provided in the draft language. In addition, the provisions for conveyance of certain lands to the State of Nevada also have the potential to improve our efficiency. However, generally the Forest Service does not support conveyance of public resources without consideration.
The draft would require local government approvals prior to any land acquisition. As a matter of practice, the Forest Service engages local governments in landownership adjustment activities, both acquisitions and disposals, so this provision would create a layer of redundancy.
Conclusion I am proud of the work that the Forest Service and its employees have been able to accomplish— particularly in a time of reduced resources and staff for non-fire programs—and of the partnerships we have developed that have made that work possible. But, more work needs to be done to address a range of threats facing our National Forests.
The Forest Service will continue to work with States, local government, Tribes, industry and our many other partners to improve our forest management program through increased collaboration and new efficiencies. We stand ready to work with Congress to address fire funding and the need for accelerated forest restoration.
As it is eloquently stated in the draft, “Lake Tahoe is one of the largest, deepest, and clearest fresh-water lakes in the world; has a distinctive cobalt blue color, a biologically diverse alpine setting, and remarkable water clarity; and is recognized as a natural resource of special significance, so that even world-traveler Mark Twain called Lake Tahoe the ‘fairest picture the whole earth affords’.” I want to thank the committee for its interest, leadership, and commitment to our national forests and their surrounding communities. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.