Rep. Goodlatte on Exploding Fire Suppression Costs

Statement of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Ranking Member, House Committee on Agriculture

RE: H.R. 5541, the Forest Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME Act)

July 9, 2008

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to express my disappointment with the bill before us today, H.R. 5541 the Forest Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act or the FLAME Act. Mr. Speaker, I believe that the authors of this bill are well intentioned and truly want to solve the wildfire funding problem, but, sadly, the FLAME Act does not provide the comprehensive solution needed to adequately resolve this problem.

With the unhealthy conditions in our forests, extreme drought, and the increasing influx of people building in fire-prone areas, the size and severity of wildfires has dramatically increased. In the 90’s, an average of 3.2 million acres burned each year. Since 2000, that annual average has doubled to 7.1 million acres. The cost of fighting these wildfires has skyrocketed, from averages of $400 million annually in the 90’s to roughly $1.4 billion in 2007. This year an area roughly the size of Connecticut has already burned, at cost of over $665 million to date.

This is not just a western issue. In my home state of Virginia, more acres have burned already this year than in any single entire year since 1963 at a cost of millions of dollars.

As firefighting costs have increased, the overall USDA Forest Service and Department of the Interior budgets have not. So, the Forest Service and DOI are footing the bill for these large, unpredictable emergency wildfires within the confines of a flat budget. For the Forest Service, this has meant a 77 percent increase in fire expenditures, a 23 percent decrease in funds to manage the national forests, and a 38 percent decrease in funds to help states and private owners manage their forests. Whether you’re a wilderness advocate, a hunter, a mountain biker, or a logger, everyone will be impacted if we don’t solve this problem.

Wildfires are not only consuming more forestland, they are consuming the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior themselves.

The FLAME Act falls short of protecting the Agencies’ budgets from this continued erosion. H.R. 5541 does not change the current budget practice of funding firefighting based on the average expenses over the previous decade. Without this change, we will continue to see more and more of the Agencies’ budgets go toward fire and less towards taking care of our nation’s forests.

In addition to this shortfall, the FLAME Act lacks a comprehensive set of solutions to the problem. Fixes to the wildfire budgeting system must be accompanied by strong cost containment and accountability standards while also ensuring fire fighter safety, incentives to encourage communities to step up to the plate and reduce wildfire risks, and more tools to prevent or minimize damage due to catastrophic wildfires, particularly in our federal forests.

H.R. 5648, the Emergency Wildland Fire Response Act of 2008 which Chairman Peterson and I introduced along with a bipartisan group of our colleagues, provides this comprehensive solution. Unfortunately, negotiations for a more comprehensive solution were cut short.

I’m pleased to see that the authors of the FLAME Act have incorporated aspects of H.R. 5648 that encourage communities to step up to the plate and become “fire-ready” and encourage the Agencies to contain costs in their firefighting efforts.

Unfortunately, even with these improvements, the FLAME Act ignores the underlying problem causing the increases in firefighting costs- the unhealthy condition of our federal forests. We will continue to see skyrocketing firefighting costs and more damage to our forests, watersheds, and communities unless we take steps to reduce fire risk in our federal forests. We must provide the Agencies additional tools to get our federal forests in a healthy, more fire resilient condition.

My alternative bill, H.R. 5648 provides a new contracting tool for the Forest Service to partner with states to address these unhealthy conditions in federal forests. This authority has been tested in Colorado and Utah where it’s proven to be very effective. Unfortunately, HR 5541 contains no such tools.

Mr. Speaker, as California and other states are dealing with massive wildfires even as we speak, we shouldn’t squander our time with legislation that is only half the solution. H.R. 5541 is akin to using the watering can to fight a wildfire: it might have some short-term benefit of slowing down the flames, but ultimately, it won’t stop the fire.

That being said, I will vote for this bill because it does move the ball forward. I’m hopeful that we can improve it as we move forward and ask my colleagues to join me in this effort.

10 Jul 2008, 3:11pm
by John M.

It is extremely frustrating to watch the FLAME “dance of legislation.” There has got to be more to the story than fiscal conservatism and the misguided belief that starving the agencies, “will make them better managers.” I can not believe 535 members of Congress are so callous as to want to see the public forests turned into lightning rods, wildlife and fishery habitat damaged or destroyed, watersheds crippled, millions of tons of carbon turned into greenhouse gas and soils destroyed.

The recently passed FLAME Bill makes me wonder if there aren’t other forces at work on the Hill that are callous about the forests and people. But it is easy to be paranoid these days. The real problem may be plain old human apathy.

10 Jul 2008, 6:58pm
by bear bait

Human apathy is fed, daily, by the environmental NGOs. It is the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, ad nauseum who spread the burn balm of “nature’s way” over the problem. And the problem is that man has been precluded from forest management by intent, in the Congress, for three decades. They ARE the problem. It is not a funding deal for fires that is dysfunctional, but the intent not to ruffle the unburned feathers of constituents who think that not logging is a very green thing to do. If you don’t treat the fuels, space trees, and underburn with regularity, then California today is what you get.

Human apathy is one thing, but ignorance is the root cause of the escalation of fire in wildlands and beyond. Ignorance of human impacts on forests for thousands of years is the real problem, and we must re-invent the wheel to solve it.

The Congress is over taxed every day with concerns that not one congressperson can comprehend. So it is aides who run the show, and they are mostly just out of college, full of liberal bullshit and shined up ideals, with no experience or common sense. They just don’t get it. And as long as they just don’t get it, there will be no solution. Our education system is filled with idealism and no practical thinking, so what we get out the door is critical thinkers who have to be taught to find answers. All that takes time, and by the time they come up with a solution, the problem morphs into another form and defies the solution. Thank God for the en banc ruling from the 9th Circuit that hopefully allows the land managers to get on with what they have been charged with for a century, albeit handcuffed by lawyers and litigants for the last three decades. That is all over, or so we have been told.

It is good to see a Congressman from Virginia involved, because the West is far from most congressional districts, and they mostly could care less about what happens west of their Districts.



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