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Lynn Jungwirth testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Posted by Renee Magyar on June 4, 2013

On behalf of forest communities, Lynn Jungwirth presented the need for a more proactive approach to fire spending.

Lynn-Jungwirth-testimony-060413

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was very receptive to testimony made today by Lynn Jungwirth, Senior Fellow at the Watershed Reseach and Training Center in Hayfork, CA, and Sustainable Northwest board member. On behalf of forest communities in the West, she spoke with a well informed and passionate voice about the need to have a robust 'culture of fire' - one with better integration between agency and civil efforts to reduce the impact of wildfire on rural communities, and a more long-term proactive approach to fire adaptation. 

Lynn outlined how fire spending is currently managed with priority going toward suppression and significantly less going toward preventative measures. There are 3 pieces to the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy: wildfire response or suppression; forest restoration and hazardous fuels reduction; and creation of fire-adapted communities. She then pointed out that "suppression is funded to the detriment of everything else." The cost of preparing for and fighting wildfire is funded in the Wildland Fire Management Budget at over $1.5 billion, hazardous fuels reduction is funded in the 100s of millions of dollars ($317 million in 2012), and the Fire Adapted Communities program - the community assistance piece that aims to create fire adapted communities - is funded at only around $2 million dollars. An earlier community assistance funding tool, the Economic Action Program for the National Fire Plan, provided funds to build biomass plants, train a local workforce, and teach the communities how to live with fire. It was only funded at roughly $12 million in 2001 - 2002, dropped to $5 million in 2003, and was zeroed out in 2004. 

Lynn expressed the need to direct more funding to collaborative planning for fire treatment in order to reduce community-level impacts of large and destructive wildfires. Currently the Forest Service is spending a huge portion of their budget on fire suppression - a reactive instead of proactive approach to forest and fire management. To take a more proactive approach to forest health, the Forest Service needs better funding and programs that would enable the agency to work more closely at the local level with communities and private local businesses to make western forests adaptive to fire and the effects of climate change. This could be attained by training a local skilled workforce to do regular conservation and preventative practices such as prescribed fire, and hazardous fuels reduction, and also be the volunteer fire department 'wildland division' to respond with federally contracted fire fighters during summer fire season. This kind of program could also support getting biomass energy production systems off the ground, thus creating an economic driver for community restoration and adaptation efforts. It has been proven that collaborative planning for fire treatment does work and can reduce cost over time. Communities will use fire treatments if the process is agreed upon in advance. But this only works as a preventative measure over a long period of time. Fire suppression is still necessary in the short term to protect community infrastructure from seasonal fire. 

One possible solution to the larger funding challenge that Lynn suggested is to relieve the Forest Service from the burden of funding emergency wildfire suppression efforts - when fire reaches beyond the scale that is manageable with local resources. Lynn likened the Forest Service paying for large scale fire to asking the National Weather Center to pay for tornado destruction. Presumably the responsibility for any large scale natural disaster would instead fall to FEMA or another off-budget account outside of the agencies. There is concern however, as stated by Senator Murkowski, that making that change would remove the incentive for the Forest Service to "keep in place cost containment strategies." Forest Service Chief Tidwell doesn't see this as an issue as long as the agency continues to make the most informed decisions they can and take steps that work and limit ineffective practices. 

Lynn's suggestions for increased funding for community restoration activities are consistent with the recommendations put forth by our Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition. And it's a testament to RVCC's years of relationship building with Congress that Lynn was invited to speak today, and it's also evidence of the positive and influential voice that the Coalition has in the national policy arena. 

Understanding that preventative measures are a long-term investment, and will ultimately result in less spending and healthier landscapes in the long run, Chair of the committee, Senator Wyden stated his commitment to pushing this forward with the support of other members of the Committee who shared this sentiment.   

Watch the video of the hearing here. Lynn's testimony begins at minute 56:56.