This year was among the worst in a string of terrible fire seasons. So far we have lost 6.5 million acres to wildfire "- more than twice the annual average. In my home state of New Mexico where we've have had a rough season, many residents are still smarting two years after fire destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos and took the lives of two men battling a separate blaze in Lincoln National Forest.
There is no question that our federal
land-management agencies need assistance and direction if their
attempts to break the cycle of devastating fire seasons are to be
successful. But rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame
for the condition of our forests, as some in Congress are quick to
do, we can seize this opportunity to provide that assistance and
direction with an eye toward removing dangerous fuels from forest
communities and areas near watersheds.
developed a plan that I believe tackles our forest-health problems
head-on. First, my proposal would double the number of acres to be
thinned next year to 5 million from 2.5 million. Second, it would
expand land management agencies' authority to move ahead quickly on
thinning projects near communities and in key municipal watersheds.
Finally, it would require that the lion's share of federal
forest-thinning funding be spent on key municipal watersheds or in
communities near national forests.
It is the
last of these provisions that makes my plan most effective. Ongoing
drought and past fire suppression policies have contributed to the
current dire state of our national forests. Approximately 73
million acres in the West are at risk of fire. Realistically,
bringing our forests back to good health will take at least 10 to15
years. But we can make near-term progress by focusing thinning
efforts on the so-called wildland/urban interface, the areas where
forests meet neighborhoods and key municipal watersheds.
This year alone, more than 3,000 structures have
been destroyed by blazes that collectively have cost more than $1
billion to fight. After protecting human life, safeguarding homes
and communities should be our top concern. We also need to be
mindful of the fact that national forests are home to watersheds
that provide water to many Western towns and cities. It may be
surprising to learn that just 39 percent of the acreage thinned by
federal land management agencies this year will be near
communities. In recent years, an even smaller percentage of these
lands were thinned.
Under my proposal, a full 70
percent of the more than $400 million we will set aside for
thinning activities next year would be directed at projects near
communities and watersheds. That means tens of millions of
additional dollars would be aimed at areas that need it most.
To ensure that the most urgent forest thinning
projects move ahead quickly, my proposal would give federal land
management agencies additional authority to perform thinning within
one half-mile of communities and key municipal watersheds.
Specifically, the measure would narrow the circumstances under
which lawsuits could be filed to halt thinning work in these high
As the chairman of the Senate
Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I am particularly aware of
the significance of our environmental laws. They were designed to
ensure that our water remains pure, our air remains clean, and our
public lands remain pristine. They also provide legal recourse to
interested parties in disagreement with a federal land management
But it is because our forests
are in such bad shape that I propose limiting legal recourse where
the need for thinning is most urgent. It is important to note that
I am supporting this action only for the fiscal year that begins
Oct. 1 and ends next September. Any permanent changes to the law
would require a much more rigorous debate in Congress and in
communities across the West.
It would be a major
mistake to use the current fire threat as an opportunity to step up
large-scale logging in national forests. To prevent this, my
proposal contains strict safeguards that would force federal land
management agencies to focus their attention on small-diameter
trees and underbrush "- the fuel that poses the most critical
threat to the spread of fire.
Our goals should
be to mitigate the threat of fire and bring our forests back to
good health. Neither of those goals are met by removing large
No one wants to see a repeat of
this year's devastating fire season. But if we direct our resources
to removing the right kind of fuel (small trees and underbrush) and
in the right areas (near communities and key municipal watersheds)
we will be taking major steps to improve forest health and protect
those living near our national forests.