National forests in the Inland West and elsewhere are infested with bugs and disease, but there is no “forest health crisis” and no congressional action is needed to address the problems, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said Thursday.
“While our forests are generally healthy, problems do exist,” Dombeck told the House Agriculture Committee.
Many of the problems resulted from excessive logging and other past policies where the government tried to stomp out all forest fires, even places where regular fires are part of the ecosystem’s normal life cycle, Dombeck said.
In the Inland West especially - Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and Idaho - forests have become overcrowded due to decades of fire suppression, he said.
In northwestern Montana, dead timber and new growth are creating a potentially catastrophic fire hazard on the Flathead, Kootenai and Bitterroot national forests of northwest Montana, Regional Forester Hal Salwasser warned earlier this month. He said the findings of a scientific assessment “reinforce the need to aggressively restore ecosystem health” through prescribed fires and logging.
Rep. Bob Smith, R-Ore., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is among those who want to accelerate salvage logging of dead and dying trees to ease fire threats. Unhappy with the Clinton administration’s action, he’s considering legislation to accomplish those goals.
“Decades of perpetual agency planning have failed to reverse accelerating declines in forest health on our national forests,” Smith said Thursday.
“Project-level decisions are still mired in time-consuming process, including protracted interagency consultations and delay-riddled appeals and litigation,” he said.
But Dombeck said the Clinton administration already has taken steps administratively to move more quickly, including streamlining planning processes and intensifying work with regulatory agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.
He defended the laws that many Republican critics want to change - the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act.
Smith said he remains troubled by the Forest Service’s estimate that an unacceptable level of fire risk exists on 40 million acres of the 191 million-acre national forest system.
Dombeck presented the committee with a supplemental statement that detailed the condition of the forests by region.
Dombeck said the Forest Service has developed a plan to try to ease fire threats at a rate of about 3 million acres a year but that current funding levels allow for only slightly more than 1 million acres annually.
Smith responded, “It’ll take us 40 years to get there at this rate. In 40 years, those forests won’t be there.”
Smith said he supports the logging strategies outlined in a report led by Chad Oliver, a professor of silviculture and ecology at the University of Washington’s College of Forestry Resources in Seattle.
That panel - which environmentalists complained was loaded with pro-logging scientists - suggests additional logging could improve the health of some national forests.
The report said most of the nation’s most valuable timber lands are off limits to logging in federally designated reserves that are prime targets for insects, disease and fire outbreaks.