Last Friday, 17 Democrats joined 227 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the “Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act.” The bill, which would more than double timber harvest levels nationwide, is unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Obama administration has already threatened to veto the bill if it reaches the president’s desk. Nevertheless, the controversial measure has reignited a heated debate about logging and wildfires in the western United States.
According to the Huffington Post, “the bill’s promises of new forest fire prevention policies helped persuade some Democrats to cross the aisle. Ten of the 17 Democrats who voted for the bill come from Western states susceptible to wildfires.” The bill authorizes funding for fuel load reduction projects in areas at risk of fire, and deems livestock grazing and timber cutting as appropriate such projects.
“If anyone doubts the necessity of this bill, let them come to my district where the Yosemite Rim fire has just incinerated 400 square miles of our precious forests,’’ said California Congressman Tom McClintock, a Republican whose district includes Yosemite National Park. “As the board feet harvested out of these forests has declined, the acreage incinerated by forest fires has increased proportionately and contemporaneously.’’
University of Colorado forestry professor Tom Veblen, who has done extensive research on wildfires, disagrees with the congressman’s assertion. “While board feet harvested in some forests may have declined as the total acreage of fires has increased, that is a spurious correlation rather than a causal relationship.”
Instead, Veblen believes a warmer climate is what’s driving the increase. “There is abundant research relating an increase in acreage burned to warming trends at a multi-decadal time scale and at an annual time scale,” he said. “While special interests would like to see the relatively low rates of timber extraction of recent years identified as the cause of increased fire activity in the U.S. West, there is strong evidence that the increased area burned each year is driven primarily by warmer temperatures.”
Democrats argued that if Republicans want to help fight wildfires, they should stop cutting funding for the U.S. Forest Service. “I wish our Republican friends were more serious about funding the Forest Service and its fuel load reduction programs,’’ said California Congressman Jared Huffman, a Democrat. “They have slashed funding year after year, even as we’ve had more severe wildfires every year.’’
The Forest Service’s wildfire fighting budget for this year has already dried up, making 2013 the second consecutive year and the sixth year since 2002 that the Forest Service has had to divert funds from other projects, such as fuel load reduction projects, to directly fighting wildfires. In addition, the across-the-board sequestration cuts slashed $115 million from the Forest Service’s wildfire fighting budget. According to the Huffington Post, “the agency hired less equipment and 500 fewer firefighters this year, reducing its force to 10,000.”
So far, 2013 hasn’t been a particularly notable year in terms of acreage burned, but a recent Arizona State University study points out that, “large forest fires have occurred more frequently in the western United States since the mid-1980s as spring temperatures increased, mountain snows melted earlier and summers got hotter.” In addition, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found 2012 to be the warmest year on record in the contiguous United States.
In the years to come, warmer temperatures could further exacerbate the Forest Service’s budget shortfalls. During a congressional committee hearing on April 11, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said there was no need for more laws addressing wildfires. Instead, Tidwell said, “it’s a capacity issue right now.”