As an Arizona rancher and President of the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, I am all too familiar with the devastating effects catastrophic wildfires have on livestock producers in the West. Fire is a natural occurrence that is beneficial when it happens on healthy forests, where it removes excess debris and allows more sunlight and nutrients for upcoming growing seasons. Back before the forests became overcrowded and under-grazed, old timers in many areas used to strike a match and start a blaze behind them as they rode out with the last fall gather. But after four decades of mismanagement of our federal forests, catastrophic wildfire—the kind that burns so hot it kills the microorganisms in the soil-- is the order of the day. This new kind of fire is doing lasting harm to forest ecosystems and western communities. When catastrophic wildfire breaks out, there are no winners—not the watershed, not the wildlife, not air quality, not the rural communities and not the taxpayer.
I testified before the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, asking Congress to provide commonsense solutions to prevent catastrophic wildfires. Representing the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the Public Lands Council (PLC) and ACGA, I voiced strong support for H.R. 1345, the Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act of 2013. H.R. 1345 was introduced by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) to address the threats to forest health, public safety and wildlife habitat presented by the risk of wildfire, including catastrophic wildfire, on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. The legislation would expedite forest management projects--timber thinning and livestock grazing-- relating to hazardous fuels reduction, forest health and economic development.
Here’s what I told the Subcommittee. Wildfires burned over nine million acres in 2012 with a suppression price tag of almost $2 billion. This doesn’t count any of the costs associated with restoration or loss of property. It has become all too clear from the millions of charred acres across the West that the planning process currently in use by federal agencies is woefully broken. They plan, study and consult—then get litigated by radical anti-logging, anti-grazing “environmental” groups who are often taxpayer-funded. Then they’re forced to plan, study and consult again. The vicious cycle continues. As a result, livestock grazing has been reduced on BLM lands by as much as 50 percent since 1971, while the timber industry has been all but destroyed over the last 30 years—all almost entirely due to federal laws and regulations and predatory environmental groups. Meanwhile, our forests and their precious natural resources go up in smoke. Over two-thirds of the land managed by the federal government is now at risk of catastrophic wildfire. The impacts on those whose livelihood depends on public lands--such as livestock producers--are tremendous. For example, southeastern Oregon’s 2012 “Long Draw” fire, the biggest Oregon burn since 1865, spanned over a half-million acres and claimed hundreds of livestock. One family lost a third of their 300-head cow-calf operation. Montana’s “Ash Creek” fire claimed roughly 400 cows and calves belonging to one ranching family. Ranching families across the West saw the same fate. Of course, we will never know the losses that resulted from the stress endured by the cattle that survived. But perhaps the biggest cost was forage loss for tens of thousands of cattle, all in just one fire season. This is only a continuation of a trend. In 2011, ACGA reported that major fires impacted at least 100 ranching families, who had to find new pasture for approximately 10,000 head of cows and 8,000 head of calves. Ranching families cannot sustain businesses under these conditions. The impact to the ranching community can hardly be measured. Across the West, hay is in short supply. Thousands of miles of fence and countless corrals and water improvements must be rebuilt. Thousands of head of displaced livestock have had to be shipped to temporary pastures. Unfortunately, dry conditions are expected to persist, delaying the recovery of burned area. I won’t be surprised if many generational operations are forced out of business when faced with the cost of finding alternative pasture.
For far too long we have allowed outside interests and bureaucratic paralysis to dictate the management of our nation’s forests. The Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act of 2013 gets to the heart of the problem. It will put hard deadlines on National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis so that grazing and thinning projects on high-risk areas can go forward. It would also reduce threats to endangered species by streamlining consultation in high-risk habitat areas. It would require the agency to evaluate the impacts of endangered species listings on hazardous fuel loads in forests and require that species recovery plans and critical habitat designations include catastrophic fire risk assessment analysis. Through stewardship contracting and “good neighbor” authority measures, it will encourage free-enterprise solutions and state collaboration, which are essential to reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfire.
Wildfire doesn’t wait for endless deliberation, and in high-risk situations, neither should we. Given the current status of our economy and the huge size of our debt and deficits, two things should be clear to all of us: first, that processes need to be put in place to allow us to save our forests; and secondly, we cannot count on the federal government to single-handedly clean, thin and properly manage our forests. The states and the local citizens must play a role, and we must no longer allow the regulatory process to be abused by those who simply do not want us to live and work on the land. The only way we are going to be able to properly manage the fibers and forage in our abundant forests is with private investment from the timber and ranching industries--which will also provide us with food and fiber. We will know we’re on the right track when we see wood mills in rural western towns again and every federal grazing allotment with the capacity for livestock is being grazed. Our rural communities will see increased jobs and economic activity—and our forests will be safer and healthier.
Source: Andy Groseta, President, Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, Past President of NCBA and PLC Member