Department of the Interior

Office of the Secretary
For Immediate Release:
June 29, 2006
Contact: Joan Moody
Deputy Secretary Scarlett Testifies How Interior Department And Partners Work To Help Prevent Wildland Fires

WASHINGTON DC— Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett testified today before the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health that, over the past four years, the Interior Department and its partners have reduced the hazardous fuels that lead to wildland fires on 7 million acres of public lands.

"In response to wildland fires that have swept across portions of the western United States, burning millions of acres, we have moved aggressively, exceeding program goals for treating the acres most at risk with thinning and prescribed fire," Scarlett said.

She recounted the history of the battle against wildland fires starting in 2002 in southwestern Oregon, when the Biscuit Fire burned almost 500,000 acres and cost more than $150 million to suppress. In response to this and other large wildland fires, Scarlett noted, the President and the Congress acted in rapid succession in 2002 and 2003 to authorize federal land management agencies to expedite action to reduce the amount of hazardous fuels on federal lands, reduce the threat of wildland fire and restore the health of public forests and rangelands.

Deputy Secretary Scarlett reported that the land management agencies of the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service have expedited implementation of new administrative and statutory authorities--including streamlined authorities to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act provided by the Healthy Forests Restoration Act [Public Law 108-148] and the President's Healthy Forests Initiative. (The latter, issued in 2002, directed the Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildland fires by restoring forest health.)

Interior's Bureau of Land Management and Agriculture's Forest Service also use the stewardship contracting authority provided by the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act (Section 323 of Public Law 108-7) to reduce hazardous fuels while providing economic benefits to local communities. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act has encouraged local communities-more than 2,700 communities so far--to work with federal agencies to prepare Community Wildfire Protection Plans. Each of the Interior agencies is actively involved in assisting states and local governments.

Another related tool highlighted by the deputy secretary is the Tribal Forest Protection Act (Public Law 108-278), passed in July 2004 in response to devastating wildfires that crossed from federal lands onto tribal lands. The law enables the tribes to propose work and enter into contracts and agreements with the Forest Service or BLM to reduce threats on federal lands adjacent to Indian trust land and Indian communities.

Deputy Secretary Scarlett discussed how use of these tools in close coordination with state, local, and tribal interests enabled Interior's agencies to reduce hazardous fuels on 7 million acres over the past four years. For three consecutive years, Interior has exceeded program targets for both total acres treated and for treating acres within the wildland-urban interface. The department has tripled the amount of wildland-urban interface acres treated since FY 2001-treating 543,000 acres in FY 2005 compared to 164,000 acres in FY 2001- and increased its share of total program acreage from 22 percent in FY 2001 to 44 percent planned for FY 2006.

Scarlett gave a number of examples of projects that illustrate how Interior and others are working to help prevent wildland fires. An example of a successful stewardship contracting project is the 10-year Gerber Stewardship project in south central Oregon. When completed, it will have treated 10,000 acres to improve forest and woodland health, improve rangeland health, reduce hazardous fuels in the wildland-urban interface, improve wildlife and fisheries habitat and enhance riparian areas. Now in its third year, with 1500 acres under contract, the project has sold 750 million board feet of timber and 15,000 tons of biomass for energy development according to Scarlett.

She noted that the Healthy Forests Restoration Act provides statutory authorization for the agencies to increase the utilization of biomass. In FY 2004 (the first full fiscal year in which the BLM had this authority), the BLM offered nearly 30,000 tons of biomass, mostly through stewardship contracts that also benefited local communities. In FY 2005, 71,000 tons of wood by-products were offered through contracts by the BLM.

In addition, the BLM has undertaken six biomass demonstration projects-in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, and two projects in Oregon-in which local field offices are working with nearby communities to develop strategies for using biomass to generate energy.