SUBLETTE COUNTY – A bipartisan bill going through Washington, D.C., aims to address the rapidly declining health of American forests and the accompanying threat of catastrophic wildfires.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act, introduced last week, would specifically expedite environmental analysis, reduce frivolous lawsuits and increase the pace and scale of critical forest restoration projects. It has already received 70 cosponsors and 87 supporting nonprofits and organizations, counting nearly a dozen Wyoming counties – including Sublette.
Sublette County Commission Chairman Joel Bousman, who also serves as chair of the National Association of Counties’ (NACo) Public Lands Steering Committee, offered a five-page written testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources in support of active forest management.
In his letter, Bousman briefly summarized Sublette’s economy, stressing the overarching influence federal entities like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have on the county.
“Active forest management will reduce the threat of wildfire to our citizens and local communities in the West,” Bousman said. “Reducing fuel loads on our national forests will help to reestablish healthy, thriving ecosystems and improve local economies and landscapes.”
He went on to list purified air, increased biodiversity, better water supplies and diminished fire risk as benefits to proactive forest management.
Counties also hold a responsibility intertwined with forest management in ensuring public safety, environmental stewardship and economic opportunities. Sublette County has more so than others due to its multiple-use reliance on federal lands.
“We are excited to see the recent reintroduction of The Resilient Federal Forests Act,” Bousman said. “This legislation will strengthen the partnership between counties and the federal government, streamline forest health regulations and reduce wildfire risks.”
Among the major concerns Bousman addressed, which have been shared by multiple federal agencies, is the ongoing wildfire risk.
Bousman stated in his letter that 2.5 million acres have already burned nationwide this year. One of those is the ongoing Shale Creek fire located just outside Kemmerer. That fire increased its reach to 160 acres while burning the ridgelines between Hams Fork and Fontenelle Creek drainages.
“From lightning on bare ridges to muddy, steep slopes, thunderstorms add extra challenges to fighting fire safely in this terrain,” incident commander trainee Jacob Henrie said.
Historically, Sublette County has been shaped by the threat and looming tragedy of wildfires. There was the Yellowstone Fire, which spilled into the county, and the catastrophic Cliff Creek, Roosevelt and Fontenelle fires.
“The severity of all these fires could have been greatly reduced if the Forest Service had been engaged in active forest management practices,” Bousman wrote. “When the Bonneville Fire reached scientifically managed areas of the forest, the fire laid down and went around these areas as witnessed by helicopter flyovers.”
There are also the byproduct risks wildfires bring. Smoke from fires in Idaho, Washington and Montana clouded Sublette County skies and lowered air quality in western Wyoming. Then, as Bousman pointed out, there’s the potential for mudslides on charred landscapes, which could pollute water sources.
That’s where the Resilient Federal Forests Act aims to make a difference. Among the bill’s stated intentions are: utilize science to triage the top 10 percent of high-risk firesheds, simplify and expedite environmental analyses to reduce costs and planning times of critical forest management, speed up essential forest management projects by eliminating frivolous litigation, supply necessary tools to restore watersheds, accelerate reviews for salvage operations and reforestation activities, incentivize collaborative projects up to 30,000 acres, create new authorities to increase tribal management, codify principles of shared stewardship, remove cumbersome interagency consultation requirements and improve existing authorities to address infestations and increase resiliency to wildfires.
“Record-breaking wildfires in the West repeatedly highlight the need for proactive, scientific forest management,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, the ranking member on the House Committee on Natural Resources. “Decades of mismanagement have led to insect infestation, hazardous fuel buildup and dead and decaying trees, creating tinderboxes for the smallest stray spark to ignite a raging inferno.
“It’s time for Congress to stop sitting on our hands and actually allow the Forest Service to use proven, scientific methods when managing our forests so that we can prevent these fires from occurring in the first place.”
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney introduced Bousman during a forum focused on wildfires and forest management last week. During that discussion, Bousman said one of his frustrations with the recent “America the Beautiful” initiatives from this administration has been ignoring carbon sequestration.
“We have the data, and it’s been talked about of the advantage of an active managed resilient forest community’s ability to sequester significantly more carbon as opposed to a dead and dying forest with insect-killed trees that are actually emitting volatile organic carbon compounds, VOCs – we know that happens,” Bousman said. “I think we’re missing a huge opportunity here in active forest management to tie these two things together with this administration and say, ‘Hey we have a solution. We need more resources, we need more capacity in the agency, we need to get people around the table in our county to identify the product available, the number of board feet that’s available for a period of 20 years, for example.’”
Rep. Cheney floated her interest in a pilot program that would further explore these projects and get them funded on a larger scale.
In his letter, Bousman also stressed the importance of local management to deal with local issues. Part of the bill’s intention is to eliminate some of the bureaucracy that prohibits immediate local involvement in favor for consultation further up the ladder. Bousman also said the county works collaboratively with the Forest Service, BLM and state Forestry Division to actively combat wildfires.
At the July 20 Sublette County commissioners’ meeting, fire warden Shad Cooper got approval for development of the community wildfire protection plan, his comprehensive guide for maintaining public safety in the events of spreading fire in the county. Cooper stressed the importance for preparedness and knowledge in helping the community combat increasing wildfire risks.
Bousman said the Forest Service, at this time, lacks the capacity to engage in management at the level required to effectively address the issue. He stated an interest in a county Good Neighbor Authority if counties would be authorized to keep receipts from timber sales and invest them into additional projects, as is similarly done at the state level.
“Congress can further support these goals by funding our federal partners at levels that encourage them to ramp up timber sales, hazardous fuels reduction projects and stewardship contracting,” Bousman said. “It is in the interests of local communities, our nation’s economy and the environment to partner with private industries to better manage our forests.
“We also most develop solutions to deal with low-valued wood products, such as increased research and technology in biofuels, which can reduce carbon emissions and contribute to healthier forestlands.”
Bousman closed by saying, as a NACo representative, counties urged Congress to enact viable legislation like the Resilient Federal Forests Act to slow the threat of catastrophic fire.
Westerman previously introduced the bill in 2019 but it went no further than introduction. The bill’s reintroduction is one of multiple wildfire-related bills on the Congressional floor this session.
Most fire crews left the Shale Creek fire earlier this week to tend to the dozes of fires burning in eastern Oregon, Idaho, even in southern Montana. Smoke from those fires diminished the air quality in Sublette County, forcing the setting sun and the waning moon to glow red for most of the previous week.