Opening Statements

Opening Statement: Ranking Member Doug LaMalfa Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry Public Hearing: “The 2020 Wildfire Year: Response and Recovery Efforts”

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Washington, September 24, 2020 | comments
Remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good afternoon everyone. Before we begin, I would like to recognize the life and legacy of Chairman Bob Smith. Bob Smith was a family man, a team roper, a cattle rancher, a banker, a contractor, and a legislator. He loved this institution and understood that working across the aisle was the best way to succeed. Bob was a politician’s politician, and many sought his quiet counsel. He appreciated the hard work of staff and understood the responsibility of his office. He was a credit to this Committee and to the House of Representatives.

Chairman Smith faithfully served Oregon’s Second Congressional District from 1983-1995 and again from 1997-1999. Between 1997 and 1999, Chairman Smith also served as the distinguished chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. Oregonians can be proud of his service and my prayers go out to his family during this time.

I would like to thank you, Chair Spanberger, for agreeing to hold today’s hearing to discuss the 2020 fire season. This year, Western States have experienced yet another catastrophic fire season with over 7 million acres burned to date. In California alone, 3.6 million acres have burned.

I am afraid future fire seasons will only get worse unless we dramatically improve the management and health of our National Forest System. In fact, the Forest Service has identified nearly 50% of the 193 million acres of the National Forest System is currently at high risk of wildfire or likely to be impacted by insect and disease outbreaks. At current pace, it will take the forest Service over 30 years to treat these acres.

Our national forests are facing an epidemic of declining health, which is in direct correlation to disastrous left-wing policies that have led to a dramatic decrease in management, even on the portions of the National Forests outside of roadless and wilderness areas. In recent years, Congress has addressed “fire borrowing” with a fire funding fix and provided new authorities in an attempt to streamline forest management. While there is not a single policy solution to solving wildfires, it is clear that our piecemeal approach is not enough.

Nearly two years ago, California experienced its most deadly wildfire on record when the “Camp Fire” took 85 lives and destroyed the town of Paradise. At that time, Congress should have acted. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees were conferencing the 2018 Farm Bill and we had the opportunity to adopt a number of bipartisan House provisions that would have helped prevent further loss of life and property from wildfires. These bipartisan House provisions were created with input from the U.S. Forest Service under both the Obama and Trump Administrations. However, despite good faith efforts by the Republican Farm Bill conferees, Senate Democrats refused to even discuss these critical reforms.

Healthy forests require active management – in the form of mechanical thinning, prescribed fires, and other activities – to ensure they do not become overgrown tinderboxes. However, under the status quo, addressing at-risk acres takes years and these delays harm the very acres we are trying to protect.

For instance, the 2018 Musick Fuels Reduction Project in the Sierra National Forest had a proposed treatment area of 12 thousand acres to respond to tree mortality and remove fuels along roads. To my knowledge, there was no litigation that delayed the project, yet analysis took nearly 2 years to the day to complete. Unfortunately, these easily identified fire-prone acres were consumed in the Creek Fire before restoration work could begin.

We can address these issues with commonsense approaches that benefit both our forests and our rural communities. There are many ideas that we can bring to the table and act on immediately. One example is H.R. 7978, the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act. I am proud to have worked with my colleague, Representative Panetta, to introduce this bill to help protect the West from these catastrophic wildfires and implement common sense forest management reforms that will help prevent these fires in the future.

While this is a good start, more work will be needed. Congress could consider any number of individual authorities from bipartisan legislation such as categorical exclusions for salvage to address landscape-scale mortality events caused by wildfire, insect infestation and disease, and drought. I encourage my colleagues to take action on these ideas and others without delay.

We are very fortunate to have Mr. John Phipps, the Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, testify before the subcommittee today. I hope to hear about his experience with wildfire issues, what tools the US Forest Service has at its disposal, and what tools are needed to further prevent and suppress wildfires.

Before I yield back, I would like to take a moment to thank all the Forest Service firefighters and other first responders that are currently risking their lives – and those who have given their lives – to protect our forests, homes, and communities. We are forever grateful for their service and I hope that today’s hearing will lead us to comprehensive solutions.
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