WASHINGTON — Coloradans testifying before Congress Thursday on western wildfires urged federal officials to manage national lands and remove hazardous fuels that have already contributed to devastating blazes in the state this summer.
“Clearly we can’t afford to stay on the same path we’ve been, it’s unacceptable to the citizens of Colorado and to everybody who enjoys national forests,” said Joseph Duda, deputy forester for the Colorado State Forest Service.
“The potential for loss of life, property and damage to natural resources is unacceptable,” Duda said.
Colorado congressmen who also serve on the House oversight panel took on the unusual role as witnesses before their peers, and expressed frustration with President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2014 that significantly cuts fire prevention measures.
The Obama administration wants to reduce hazardous fuel removal efforts by 37 percent, or $115 million.
Since 2007, Colorado has spent $30 million for fuel mitigation and forest management projects, Duda said.
Federal officials testifying before the panel blamed cuts this summer on sequestration, but admitted that the proposed cuts for next year are at the administration’s discretion.
Adding insult to injury, lawmakers said the administration wants to purchase even more land for the federal inventory, a ten percent increase over this year, to acquire an additional 60 million acres of property in 2014.
The federal government already controls 640 million acres, of which 80 million acres are at risk of insect infestation and disease that is killing the trees and fueling the devastating fires.
“All we are doing is exacerbating the potential problem that is out there,” said Rep Rob Bishop, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation.
Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn described for the committee wildfires that are burning within sight of his house in Colorado Springs. White smoke signaled burning trees, but turned to black when a house went up in flames, Lamborn said.
“Colorado and other states cannot afford to continue absorbing the enormous costs associated with these fires, most of which have burned on federal land, primarily in areas where trees are far too old and dense, and often have been affected by insects or disease,” Lamborn said.
“It is widely recognized that management of our forest resources has not kept pace with the ever increasing need for restoration. Decades of failed policy with respect to active forest management have created unhealthy and overstocked forest conditions, placing 73 million acres of national forest land and 397 million acres of forest land nationwide at risk to severe wildfire,” Lamborn said.
Republican Rep. Scott Tipton who represents the Western Slope said incident commanders on the West Fork Fire that has destroyed more than 100,000 acres, reports that the insect infestation has caused the fire to behave in an unprecedented manner.
“Because of all of the beetle-killed timber and dry conditions, the fire has acted in a way that defies computer models and has been incredibly devastating,” Tipton said.
“The most tragic part of this is that the occurrence of these forest fires could be reduced, if not outright prevented, with commonsense forest management,” Tipton said.
Colorado has nearly 25 million acres of forests, 68 percent of which is controlled by the federal government. Since 1996, nearly seven million acres have been severely impacted by the bark beetle infestation.
The hearing comes on the heels of the tragic deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona last month who were battling the Yarnell Hill fire that has destroyed more than 100 homes on 8,000 acres of land.
Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon sided with Republicans and criticized White House officials at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for slashing forest fire prevention funds.
“There are trolls at the OMB who don’t think hazardous fuels reduction works,” DeFazio said.
“This is going to be a really bad year and tens of thousands of acres are pleading for hazardous fuels reduction and it’s not happening, the money is not there,” DeFazio said.
Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican and chairman of the full committee, said Forest Service officials are not responding to the threat before the fires ignite because they fear lawsuits from environmental groups that use the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act to block timber fuels reduction and thinning projects.
“Already this year, we’ve seen record-breaking fires in Colorado, the tragic deaths of 20 firefighters, and hundreds of homes lost,” Hastings said.
“Our forests, communities, and species deserve better than being placed at continual and increasing risk of catastrophic wildfires and this committee will continue working toward policies that force federal land managers to follow their statutory responsibilities to improve forest health to protect these lands and local economies,” Hastings said.
Also this week members of the Colorado congressional delegation sent a letter to Obama urging him to expedite the state’s request to declare the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires major disaster areas.
Until the president approves the request, federal resources will not be made available for certain response and recovery efforts.
In addition, lawmakers asked the Small Business Administration to approve a disaster declaration for the West Fork Fire so that businesses can apply for disaster assistance loans.