Paul Gosar on Forests, Fire and Litigation

Congressman Paul Gosar, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, represents Arizona’s First Congressional District.

Column: Forest policy must be proactive, sustainable
Special to the Courier

This year, our communities have been victims of the largest forest fires in recorded history. The Wallow fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest grew to over half a million acres, charring in its wake some of the most treasured parts of ponderosa pine country. In total, over a million acres of Forest Service lands, as well as another 600,000 acres of federal, state, and private lands have burned across the American Southwest.

The frequency of fires, and the magnitude of the acreage burned, has exponentially increased since 1990. It is time for us to be honest about the problem as well as the solution. We must re-evaluate our forest management policies at all levels of government because the status quo is detrimental to our safety, Arizona’s ecological health, and the local and national economy.

The current federal system continues to give funding priority to suppression. Although the need to suppress fires is never going to go away, it is clear we must shift priority toward pro-active forest restoration management. It is estimated that long-term restoration and rehabilitation generally amount to two to 30 times the reported suppression costs.

There is roughly 80 million acres of forests across the West that are overgrown and ripe for catastrophic wildfire, according to the Landfire multiagency database. We simply cannot afford to use taxpayer dollars for 100 percent of the large-scale restoration work necessary to prevent unnatural fires like Wallow, Rodeo-Chediski, or Schultz. Empowering private industry is going to be the key to the future of forest management.

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4-FRI) is a proposal that will restore 2.5 million acres of ponderosa pine forests on the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab, and Tonto national forests and revitalizes the Arizona logging industry. Instead of relying on the Forest Service to pay all of the costs for restoration thinning, 4-FRI recognizes the fiscal reality and puts forth a proposal that calls for the Forest Service to partner with private industry to restore proper forest health.

This first of its kind large-scale treatment will reduce damaging wildfire impacts, as well as provide forest jobs, markets for wood products, and ecological restoration. It has garnered my support, as well as colleagues in the Arizona Congressional Delegation, Gov. Jan Brewer, leaders in the state Legislature, the affected counties and cities, and an unprecedented range of environmental groups and industry partners.

When the federal government partners with local government, stakeholder groups, and private industry, together we can create much needed jobs and a safer environment for our citizens. Landscape-scale, fiscally responsible forest restoration treatments are the only way our state and the country is going to make real progress toward proper forest health.

I am also looking at a wide variety of legislative initiatives that will improve federal law affecting natural resources management. I am reviewing environmental laws in need of reform to make the process more streamlined, efficient and fair. Compliance has become muddled and overly bureaucratic, leading to project-killing delays. The goal is not to dismantle important environmental protections, but to ensure they are working with us, not against us.

I am also looking at reforming the Equal Access to Justice Act, a law that is frequently misused to obstruct important conservation and economic development initiatives. While some lawsuits are important to ensuring our environmental laws are upheld, some groups sue federal agencies excessively, tie up the process for years, and then submit a bill to the taxpayers via EAJA.

I am a cosponsor of HR1996 the Government Litigation Savings Act, which will put a halt to these abuses by reinstating tracking and reporting requirements and instituting reforms that will reduce the taxpayer’s burden to pay for the attorney’s fees. These reforms will return the law to its original intent – to help individuals and small businesses during a once-in-a-lifetime need to battle the federal government in court.

Our forest and natural resources are a way of life in Arizona. I remain saddened by what has happened to my constituents who have been adversely affected by this fire. I think if we look forward and work collaboratively in stewardship, we can address the desperate forest maintenance crisis and other natural resources-related issues facing our state.

Here is the link to HR 1996

9 thoughts on “Paul Gosar on Forests, Fire and Litigation”

  1. Maybe, someday, the Endangered Species Act will not only protect crucial habitats from destructive logging, but will protect them from catastrophic wildfires with “prescribed thinning”. There has been very little in the media about the scope of the fire damages, how long the effects will last, and how much it all will cost, both economically and environmentally. Those old growth pines won’t be coming back for a VERY…… LONG…….. TIME. Neither will the endangered species and their habitats.

    I expect that Arizona and New Mexico politics will be used to obfuscate and obstruct restoration and rehabilitation projects. “Passive restoration” fails once again!

  2. Let’s start out with Rep. Gosar’s foundational claim, on which he bases his thesis: “The frequency of fires, and the magnitude of the acreage burned, has exponentially increased since 1990.

    From the SW Geographic Area Coordination Center is this handy graph showing numbers of fires >100 acres by year, since 1990. Far from showing an “exponential” increase, the black trend line is down — no increase whatsoever, much less the claimed “exponential” increase.

    Total ignitions since 1990 (scroll to end of table for regional totals) in the southwest region also show no sign of an exponential increase. In fact, the three highest fire ignition years are all in the early 1990s.

  3. So here’s something about acreage burned from a climate website here

    News Flash: Comparing Arizona’s Largest Fires

    Arizona’s largest fire is no longer the Rodeo-Chediski, which consumed about 468,000 acres in 2002. The Wallow Fire, which began May 29, has charred more than 495,000 acres as of June 17. How have these two fires compared?

    When the Rodeo-Chediski flames first erupted in east-central Arizona, an extreme drought gripped the landscape and was downgraded to an exceptional drought during the fire, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. On the eve of the Wallow Fire, drought conditions were severe to extreme, and the magnitude and duration of dry conditions were less severe than they were on the eve of the 2002 blaze. Windy conditions have played a large role in advancing the Wallow Fire, while Rodeo-Chediski spread during periods of low wind; the latter spread vigorously in large part because of very dry fuels. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire was also considerably more destructive to property, consuming about 400 homes in Pinedale and other small communities. By June 17, the Wallow Fire has destroyed 32 homes, four commercial buildings, and 34 other structures.

    This year will go down in the record books as the most severe fire season for both Arizona and New Mexico since 1990, when fire record-keeping began. As of June 14, 757,076 acres had burned in Arizona, while 631,272 acres had been blackened in New Mexico.

    Here are my questions..1) could acres burned have only been kept track of since 1990? Doesn’t that seem kind of odd-seems like suppression folks would have been keeping track.

    2) Here is what we often see in the climate literature-perhaps this is extrapolated inappropriately from where the study was conducted to the SW (I haven’t had time to examine the article yet). This is from the Southwest Climate Network blog here.

    A 2006 peer-reviewed study by Westerling et al. in the journal Science shows a link between warming temperatures, earlier spring snowmelt, and a clear rise in the frequency of large wildfires. Snow melting sooner means the ground is much drier earlier in the summer. Higher summer temperatures dry out the forest, enabling it to burn more easily. Both of these climate factors show strong correlation with the increased incidence of large wildfires in recent years. As the world is expected to continue to warm, larger and more extreme wildfires may become the new norm. Large, climate-driven fires look to be a major challenge for forest managers, residents, and outdoors enthusiasts over the coming century.

    Reference Cited: Westerling, A.L., H.G. Hildago, D.R. Cayan, and T.W. Swetnam. (2006) Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western US Forest Wildfire Activity. Science 313, 940-943.

    If it’s confusing to me, who has worked in this biz nigh on 40 years (since choosing a major in 74), how much is it reasonable to expect from journalists or politicians?

    • My answer to your questions:

      1) Fire statistics since 1990 are readily available on the GACC websites. I suspect that’s why Gosar used that starting point. Fire data have been collected much longer, but data from earlier years appear suspect. For example, pre-1983 data are being revised by NICC and, at least when it comes to ignitions, show a big increase compared to post-1983 years. Some sort of artifact.

      2) Should politicians/journalists be held to some standard of mathematical literacy? Well, I’d like to think so. But, in reality, Americans aren’t too good at maths. According to the Department of Education, 13% of adults are “proficient” in numerical skills, defined as “the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy activities.” Men score higher, on average, than women, but that gap has narrowed since the last survey (1990) as women’s scores have increased greater than men’s.

  4. Next, let’s look at Gosar’s second factual claim, that the “magnitude of the acreage burned has increased exponentially since 1990.” In 1990, 126,029 acres burned in the SW region (AZ, NM, and SW Texas). A simple exponential function would call for a doubling of the 1990 acreage each year to the present time, i.e., this is the function by which bacteria are said to grow exponentially. Gosar’s claimed exponential growth would call for about 60 billion acres/year burned by 2010. The U.S. has only 2.3 billion acres of total land area.

    Okay, so Gosar (or his staff) doesn’t know much about math.

    But had Gosar claimed a geometric, not exponential, increase in SW acreage burned, he would have been right on. Fitting a linear trend line to the last 20 years shows an average three-fold increase in acres burned. The variation year-by-year is high, but the trend is upwards.

    • Andy, I looked around on the GACC but couldn’t find a simple “acres by state by year” since 1990.
      Maybe he meant the “frequency of large fires” and not the frequency of ignitions. There is a problem with any of these in catching a climate signal if we can’t go back past 1990 due to the data. Data adjustments for data related to “hot” topics tend to become suspect.

      • Here’s the SW GACC table of burned acres by state by year since 1990.

        Regarding climate signals, the acres-burned data show a quite nice correlation with regional droughts; so, yes, they are sufficient to “catch a climate signal.”

        If, however, you’re looking for an increasing-CO2-means-increasing-acres-burned-in-SW-US correlation, you’re correct — the post-1990 time series is too short.

  5. I’m certain Representative Paul Gosar understands that National Forest System land is not “Forest Service land” as he called it in paragraph 1, line 4, of this fine article.

    With very few exceptions (e.g., non-national forest land acquired by the Forest Service for use as administrative sites, communications sites, etc.), and despite the fact many use the term, there’s no such thing as “Forest Service land.”

    It’s “national forest land” that belongs to the people of the United States–the citizen-owners of the National Forest System–and is administered for them by the U.S. Forest Service as prescribed by law, not “Forest Service land.”

    A small point? A nitpick? Not at all!

    It’s an all-important distinction that informs–or should inform–the perceptions (and thus the operational realities) of the politicians, pundits, public servants and the publics they serve of their respective roles, responsibilities, and prerogatives vis-a-vis the national forests and each other.

    –Les Joslin


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