WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) delivered the following remarks at a committee oversight and legislative hearing on “Improving Interagency Forest Management to Strengthen Tribal Capabilities for Responding to and Preventing Wildfires, and S. 3014, a bill to improve the management of Indian forest land, and for other purposes.”
The hearing featured testimony from Mr. Michael S. Black, director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior; Mr. James Hubbard, the deputy chief of State and Private Forestry for the U.S. Forest Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Honorable William Nicholson, board member for the Intertribal Timber Council and secretary for the Colville Business Council at the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation; and the Honorable Carole Lankford, council member for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes.
Click here for more information on the witnesses’ testimony and to watch video of the entire hearing.
Senator Barrasso’s remarks:
“As the 2016 wildfire season begins, we take this opportunity to examine current federal laws and policies in place that strengthen tribal capabilities and capacity for responding to and preventing wildfires on tribal lands.
“According to the National Interagency Fire Center, last year, approximately 4.8 million acres of federal land managed by the Department of the Interior burned as a result of wildland fires.
“Of that amount, over a half-million acres of Bureau of Indian Affairs land burned due to wildfires.
“In my home state of Wyoming, over 3,000 acres of BIA land burned on the Wind River Reservation just last year. The BIA has a backlog of nearly 3.2 million acres of Indian forest land requiring forest health treatments.
“If solutions are not found to expedite this treatment, these acres will burn – costing hundreds of millions of dollars to suppress the fire and depriving tribes of the economic value of their forest assets.
“The Department of the Interior carries out the trust responsibilities to manage and protect Indian forests.
“The Department of Agriculture, specifically the U.S. Forest Service, is the primary neighbor of Indian lands – with over 4,000 miles of shared boundaries.
“Over 18 million acres of forests are located on over 305 Indian reservations in 24 states. These forests are vital to many Indian and rural communities.
“They provide a foundation for job creation, economic development, and cultural preservation. But one fire can destroy all of that.
“For example, the summer of 2015 produced one of the largest wildfires on the Colville reservation in Washington state.
“According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, the North Star wildland fire on the Colville reservation was the fifth most expensive wildfire in the country.
“That fire consumed over 250,000 acres of forest and devastated more than 14 percent of its commercial timber.
“Commercial timber revenues make up about $10 million of the approximately $45 million annual operating budget for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
“After that destructive fire season, tribal leaders began to question federal firefighting priorities.
“One witness today, William Nicholson, Board Member of the Inter-tribal Timber Council, wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewel in December of 2015 about his concern about new and proposed Interior Department policies for wildland fire management.
“He noted that the Intertribal Timber Council found the Department’s Risk Based Wildland Fire Management funding allocation model ‘deeply flawed.’
“The council further stated: ‘that the failure to correct [this model] and its application would result in increased long term risk to tribal and other resources managed by the Department of the Interior.’
“The council further criticized Secretarial Order 3336, which they believe prioritizes federal firefighting resources towards protecting sage grouse habitat over tribal and other previous priorities.
“The letter states – ‘We are frankly bewildered that Secretarial Order 3336 concerning the Sage Grouse appears to taken precedence over all other secretarial directives at the expense of all other species, ecosystems, and responsibilities.’
“In September of 2015, Northwest Public Radio article, the Northwest liaison for the National Interagency Fire Center stated-
“The single overriding suppression priority is the protection of human life […] After that we start looking at the protection of communities, infrastructure, property and any improvements that may be in place, and then we go on down to natural and cultural resources.”
“What this means is other factors such as roads and other structures are given higher priorities, which mean cultural resources are given a back seat. These examples raise serious concerns.
“The secretary must ensure that the trust obligation to tribes is not infringed by the very agencies entrusted to carry it out.
“More transparency in agency decision-making in terms of where assets go in preventing and fighting wildfires, is needed so that Tribal priorities are given their proper consideration.
“Senator Daines has introduced legislation which is supported by the Intertribal Timber Council, S. 3014, the Tribal Forestry Participation and Protection Act of 2016, which we will take up here today.
“This bill would increase interagency forest management between the tribes, the Departments of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior.
“This bill will also create a ten-year pilot program that authorizes the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, at the request of an Indian tribe, in consultation with state and local governments, to treat federal forest land as Indian forest land for the sole purpose of expediting forest health projects on federal lands that have a direct connection to the tribe.
“This bill gives the secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior authority to enter into 638 contracts with tribes to complete administrative functions under the Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004, rather than requiring that the federal government do it for them.”