Washington, D.C. –As wildfires rage in California, debate on how to better manage the nation's forests swept through the U.S. Senate this week.
U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., asked his colleagues to support H.R. 1904, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
"The wildfires in California are speaking volumes. The importance of taking every possible step to ensure we minimize this kind of frightening destruction in the future is clear," said Enzi.
Enzi said passage of the Healthy Forests bill is one of those steps. The bill would cut some of the red tape for hazardous fuel reduction to protect forests near populated areas and municipal water supply systems. The bill would also increase management in areas where specific environmental conditions, including "blowdown" or disease, pose a significant threat to ecosystems, forests, rangeland resources and endangered species habitat.
"Thinning and cleaning can restore our national forests to a point where fire can be returned as a healthy part of the environment," Enzi said.
The Senate passed the Healthy Forests bill late Thursday night by a vote of 80-14. The House passed the Healthy Forest bill in May. The next step for the legislation is a Senate-House conference committee that will work out differences between the two versions of the bill.
The bipartisan legislation faced opposition from some environmental groups, but Enzi believes many of these groups' efforts have hurt the forest.
"For years now, we have been trying to reduce that risk and make our forests safer and more fire resilient. Often we are met with the same response: more environmental reviews, more litigation that increases the threatening fuel buildup," Enzi said. "I am tired of sawmills and timber people being characterized as ogres. I had a brainstorming session with employees of Wyoming Sawmills to find better ways to make our forests healthy. These are innovative, caring people. They know what healthy thinning is and they know what a forest could look like. They know their very livelihood relies on good management practices."
Enzi warned that areas of Wyoming are prime for future devastating wildfires if nothing is done.
"So far we've been lucky in that some of our most dangerous areas in Wyoming have not yet caught fire. One area I am particularly concerned about is just west of Cody on Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest. It lies just next to Yellowstone National Park. It provides crucial habitat to wolves, grizzlies, whooping cranes, elk, bison, mule deer and other animals. The area is also home to a very severe pine beetle infestation that threatens to ignite and cause extreme damage to the Park, the forest and surrounding communities," said Enzi.
Michael B. Enzi
Michael B. Enzi
Mr. President, we have all heard the expression many times – "A picture is worth a thousand words." If that is so, I don't think there is any question that the pictures of the wildfires in California are speaking volumes and they have had a dramatic impact on all of us in the Congress and around the country. The fires continue to burn out West and the toll continues to mount. The amount of forest land up in flames, the homes destroyed, the lives lost and the people forever changed by what they have experienced will never be known. One thing that is very clear, however, is the importance of taking every possible step to ensure that we minimize this kind of frightening destruction in the future.
It is bad enough that we have had to witness the devestation in California – and I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment to express our appreciation and our gratitude to the brave people who are fighting the fires there – without regard for their own safety. They are true American heroes and we will be keeping them in our prayers.
But take that feeling that comes from seeing all that destruction and despair in California and imagine that you were seeing the reality of a threat that faces you every day of your life. Imagine you wake up every day filled with the fear of knowing that your home, your job, your family, your heritage and your community could be wiped out in a heartbeat. Imagine the commitment you would have to protecting your family and your cherished possessions, only to be told that you can't do much about it because somebody, far away, whose home is not facing the same kind of threat has decided you aren't worth the effort.
You might think I am exaggerating the problem but the fact is there are more than 100 million acres of Federal forests lands that now exist under an unnaturally high risk of catastrophic wildfires and large scale insect and disease outbreaks because of unhealthy forest conditions.
For years now, we have been trying everything we can to reduce that risk and make our forests safer and more fire resilient. Every time we have tried we have had the same response: more environmental reviews, more litigation and more trees that increase instead of reduce the threat to the land around them. We now have the images to confirm that our concerns were not fairy tales. We were not just speaking as alarmists but as people faced with a very real threat. This situation is particularly acute in western forests where more than sixty years of aggressive fire suppression programs have removed fire as a mitigating factor in maintaining forest health. As a result of these well-meaning efforts, many of our forests suffer from an unnatural accumulation of vegetation on the forest floors. Dense undergrowth, combined with increasingly taller layers of intermediate vegetation have turned western forests into deadly time bombs.
Unlike healthy fires of the past that thinned out the underbrush and left the large trees to grow larger, modern wildfires quickly climb the dense vegetation like a ladder until they top out at the uppermost, or crown, level of the forest and race out of control as catastrophic fires. Because of their high speed and intense heat, these "crown fires" leave an almost sterile environment in their wake. After a crown fire, nothing is left behind; no trees, no wildlife, and no habitat to speak of – with few microorganisms left to rebuild the soil.
Vegetation manipulation, including timber harvest, is therefore necessary to restore our forests, particularly in the West, to conditions that are more resistant to catastrophic disturbances and that are within acceptable ranges of variability. Scientific studies, including the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP) Report state that timber harvest is a tool that can be used to enhance overall forest resilience to disturbance. The SNEP report states, for example, that "logging can serve as a tool to help reduce fire hazard when slash is treated and treatments are maintained." If conducted on a large enough scale and in a controlled manner, timber harvests can restore our national forests to a point where fire can be returned as a healthy part of the environment.
However, any proposal that prohibits all forms of commercial timber harvest, regardless of the objective, indiscriminately removes an efficient and valuable tool from land managers for restoring forest conditions to a more resilient and sustainable state.
I'm tired of sawmills and timber harvesting being seen as ogres. I had a brainstorming session with employees of Wyoming Sawmills and talked about healthy forests. I found them all to be concerned people who can increase the amount of expertise that is used in forest management and can do it in a way that helps our forest managers save money. These employees showed me what can be done with scrub trees in making innovative composite construction housing materials. I am talking about using small trees and stems that were once considered junk trees were stacked in the forests and burned.
Using the innovative approach developed by Wyoming Sawmills employees is good stewardship. It would be wrong to accuse them of wanting to clear cut the forests. They know what healthy thinning is and they know what a forest should look like. They know that their livelihood relies on good practices.
So far we've been lucky in that some of our most dangerous areas in Wyoming have not yet caught fire. One area I am particularly concerned about is just west of Cody on Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest. It lies just next to Yellowstone National Park. It provides crucial habitat to wolves, grizzlies, whooping cranes, elk, bison, mule deer and other animals that spend part of their lives in Yellowstone National Park. The area is also home to a very severe pine beetle infestation that threatens to ignite and cause extreme damage to the Park, the forest and surrounding communities.
Other areas in Wyoming have not been as fortunate. I heard a report just a few weeks ago that a number of significant Native American archeological sites no longer exist in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains. When a fire swept through them earlier this year it didn't just destroy habitat but it also took some of the last remaining examples of wikiups and wooden sheep traps that were built by Wyoming's Sheepeater Indians. Their handiwork that reflected their place in our history is now gone and only exists in a few pictures that were fortunately taken before the fires swept it all away.
For me, this is an issue that has its roots back in the days when I was a Boy Scout. At the time, I was working on one of the requirements for the rank of First Class that had to be reached if I were to earn my Eagle Scout Award. To be successful, I had to start a campfire with no more than two matches. I got to be very good at starting campfires and was well known for winning water boiling contests at scout camporees. There are a number of tricks people develop in starting campfires, and I had my own system that helped me win, but no matter who you are or what your trick might be there are three basic elements to every fire: oxygen, fuel and heat.
Oxygen comes from the air and is readily available. Fuel is found in the wood, particularly dry wood that burns easily when enough heat is applied. Heat comes from a spark, a match or possibly just friction. The best way to apply enough heat to start a successful campfire is to properly organize the wood in a way that allows the flames to climb up from the bottom of the firepit where you put the smaller, quick-burning sticks and tinder – to the larger, longer burning logs in much the same way as someone would climb a ladder, one rung at a time.
To start a successful fire I began by carefully putting my wood shavings at the bottom of the fire – this would be my light tinder or first rung of the fire ladder. I then built a small tee-pee of sticks over my tinder as my second rung and then added larger and larger sticks until I had my largest pieces of wood on top where they could draw the heat from the flames of the intermediate sticks below them. If I did everything correctly I could start my fire and get a can of water to boil before anyone else did.
You might wonder what this little story of mine has to do with the current state of our National Forests.
Well, if we were to head out into the forest right now, and we took a good look around at the density of the ground all around us, you would see that they are laid out just like the campfires I was trained to build and start when I was a Boy Scout. At the bottom of every forest lies a collection of small, dried out bushes, leaves and fallen bark. Over this pile of tinder is the next rung of the forest fuels ladder which is made up of small to intermediate trees. These intermediate trees are then crowded in below the larger and older trees that make up the top rung or crown of the forest fuels ladder.
This problem wasn't always as bad as it is now. There was a time when Mother Nature and the Native Americans took care of thinning our forests by regularly starting wildfires. Because the fuel loads weren't allowed to grow as dense as they are today the fuel ladder didn't reach all the way up to the big trees. Fires would burn up the tinder and thin out the intermediate and dead and dying trees. This promoted biodiversity, kept the intensity of the forests down and, in times of drought the competition for limited water resources was dramatically less than it is today. We now have forests that historically have had 40 or 50 tree stems per acre that are now over 200 stems per acre. This is a 300 percent increase. We aren't able to use wide spread fire anymore because of the danger it presents to homes, as you are seeing right now in California.
When a fire starts in forests this dense it quickly climbs the fuel ladder and races out of control. These crown fires are all but impossible to stop. The heat generated from all rungs burning at once sterilizes the soil and leaves nothing but desolation in its wake. This is only made worse with the added factor of drought. By adding to the mix stands of dead trees that are as dry and volatile as the tinder on the forest floor you can just imagine the threat this kind of fire could have on the forests and their surrounding communities.
It is a much better conservation practice, therefore, to step in and duplicate the effect historic, healthy fires had on our forests by using what is called mechanical thinning. This is a practice where our land management agencies can hire experienced timber companies to remove the dense underbrush and carry out the smaller and intermediate trees thereby leaving a forest that is healthier, more biodiverse, more fire resilient and with a better mix of older and younger trees.
The alternative is to allow Mother Nature to step in and conduct one of her catastrophic clear cuts, and when Mother Nature does a clear cut she doesn't respect riparian zones or raptor nesting sites, or homes.
Clearly that is a scenario we must make every effort to prevent.
As we do, just imagine how you would feel if you were here today while your family was back home, living in a house that stood in the shadow of one of those forests that is ready to explode in a blaze of flames.
Unfortunately, you don't have to imagine what that would be like anymore. We've seen what it would be like in the pictures of the fires that continue to threaten southern California.
What we have to do now is work toward a goal we should all support – ensuring no one else has to face another wildfire blazing out of control through their homes and neighborhoods because of a policy we could have, but didn't change.