WASHINGTON — Even as his bill gained steam in Congress, the Obama administration indicated Friday that it opposes Rep. Scott Tipton’s legislation that would give state officials a freer hand to prevent wildfires on federal lands.
Ed Roberson, assistant director of renewable resources and planning for the Obama Administration’s Bureau of Land Management, suggested that Tipton’s measure might reduce citizens’ and environmental groups’ influence in designating parts of national forests as high-risk areas.
“This department seeks to protect public involvement in these decisions,” he said of the Interior Department, which oversees the BLM.
Tipton’s seatmate Rep. Cory Gardner, a Yuma Republican who supports the bill, reacted with more outward feeling than his colleague. After several witnesses completed their testimony and answered questions that subcommittee members posed, Gardner grilled Roberson for several minutes and interrupted him at times.
“I’m stunned by the callousness of the Interior Department. We have a situation where Washington fiddles and our state is burning,” Gardner said, his voice rising. “Two hundred homes in my district have burnt down, and you’re going to oppose this bill because it’s going to give more authority to states and localities? We believe we and the state should work together.”
After Gardner asked Roberson to explain the administration’s position, Roberson suggested the bill did not fulfill the department’s goals. “We’re managing public lands to each ecological balance across thelands. We believe we should work in concert, and we do this at the state and federal level,” he said.
With the devastating High Park fire in mind, Gardner posed another question. “Is 90,000 acres of burned acres resilient?” he asked.
Tipton’s bill is a response not only to the wildfires that ravaged north central Colorado this spring and summer but also the bark-beetle infestation in the state’s forests. Bark- or pine beetles have multiplied in the high country’s forests for 16 years, hollowing out its pine trees and leaving the forests more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.
With bark beetles unrepresented on Capitol Hill, the members of the subcommittee on national parks, forests, and public lands as well as the witnesses at the hearing agreed that reducing the ranks of the insect is a worthwhile goal. But their analysis of the causes of the problem and means of addressing it differed.
For example, liberals in Congress and the administration argue that the bark-beetle epidemic is a symptom of climate change. Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal Washington-based think tank, wrote in his testimony that the infestation was “tightly tied to drought-induced water stress.”
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) endorsed Romm’s analysis and that of Obama Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman, who attributed Colorado’s wildfires to global warming.
Others have pointed to a 2011 report released by the Forest Service, which Sherman oversees, suggesting that environmental litigation and restrictive land use designations have contributed to the beetle epidemic.
The most disputed provision of Tipton’s bill would give state governors the authority to declare federal lands as “high-risk areas” and allow the governor 60 days to implement emergency steps to address them.
Tipton did not ask Roberson, the BLM official, or Mary Wagner, associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service, their reasons for opposing the 60-day rule. Instead, he sought to assure Roberson that the provision would give the public sufficient input in addressing high-risk areas, telling him he “would not have to worry” about it.
Roberson said in an interview after the hearing that giving a governor 60 days to prevent wildfires on federal land is arbitrary. The National Association of Forest Service Retirees also came out against the provision. The organization’s legislative director, Hank Kashdan, said in his prepared remarks that it would create “false expectations that nationwide resources might be shifted as a result of a governor’s designation.”
Yet both Roberson and Kashdan indicated they would work with Tipton to prevent wildfires. “I know we’ll talk to the committee again and be back here,” Roberson said.
A House Republican aide said the House Natural Resources Committee is expected to consider Tipton’s bill in September