EPW Hearing Statement: Hearing on Forest Management to Mitigate Wildfires: Legislative Solutions

WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the hearing, “Hearing on Forest Management to Mitigate Wildfires: Legislative Solutions.” Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Chairman Barrasso, for holding this important hearing. Our country has experienced a number of significant natural disasters this year, including increasingly destructive hurricanes and the catastrophic wildfires out West. These disasters disrupt and endanger people’s lives, their homes, health, safety and livelihoods. Wildfires, and hurricanes for that matter, also destroy habitat and imperil our wildlife.

“I agree with the GAO that climate change contributes to making these disasters more severe. They are becoming more common, more destructive and exponentially more expensive with each passing years. As we know, at the start of every Congress, the Government Accountability Office publishes its High Risk List to call attention to areas within the federal government that pose a high risk due to their vulnerabilities. Once again, in 2017, GAO noted that climate change ‘presents a significant financial risk to the federal government.’ And we are seeing that across this country – from the fires out West to the devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As our federal budget deficit for this year climbs past $700 billion, and headed higher, among other things, we need to proactively ensure we help reduce the risk of future disasters and plan for the response costs. When it comes to planning for severe weather events, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

“Today, I look forward to hearing from our colleagues and witnesses how best to manage the serious threat posed by wildfires. We need to make sure that we are taking appropriate steps to prevent wildfires from occurring. We must also ensure that our first responders, federal agencies and local governments have the tools they need to combat faster, longer and more frequent wildfires. I agree with my colleagues that environmental laws should be nimble and not unduly impede our preparation for and response to these unprecedented wildfires, but I do not believe environmental laws are to blame for their occurrence. Many factors contribute to the severity of wildfires. They include homes and other development located near forest lands, along with climate change, as I have mentioned.

“As I have also said before, we need to be very careful about making sweeping changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act – particularly when existing authorities, more targeted changes or adequate funding can help to address our challenges. We must also adopt budgets that provide for proactive forest management and firefighting activities. Budget constraints may actually be preventing the Forest Service from using existing authorities to more efficiently respond to fires and mitigate their risk, and the problem is getting worse. In 1995, only 16% of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget was dedicated to fire suppression. Since 2015, the Forest service has been spending more than half of its annual budget fighting fires. More than half. According to Secretary Perdue, firefighting activities will likely consume two-thirds of the Forest Service’s budget by 2021.  

“I hope today’s hearing will lead to even more thoughtful discussions and to a growing bipartisan consensus in the Congress in the days ahead on how to build greater resilience that will enable us to cost-effectively address the increase in enormously expensive natural disasters that we have been  witnessing in our country in recent years.  In closing, I ask unanimous consent to enter several letters and documents from concerned stakeholders into the record. Thank you to all of my colleagues and our witnesses for being here today.”