A fire-damaged sign reads 'Warning: Burned Watershed. Risk from flash flood, rock fall and debris'. Photo: Chris Stewart / U.S. Forest Service

[The interesting thing about this story is that it never mentions global warming, even though we know that there's a strong correlation between rising temperatures and wildfires, e.g., Study finds climate change is increasing length of wildfire seasons across globe. –Des]

By Bill Theobald
6 November 2015

WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) – The damage caused by the devastating wildfire season goes well beyond the 9.4 million acres destroyed so far, witnesses from outdoor and water conservation groups told Congress Thursday.

Lack of forest management is causing a decline in the deer and game bird populations in forests, which is reducing hunting, Daniel Dessecker with the Ruffed Grouse Society testified before the Senate agriculture committee.

“Deer hunting is both a foundation of our nation’s hunting heritage and a huge economic engine,” Dessecker said, adding that hunters contribute $34 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

Dessecker and other witnesses said the forests are not being managed properly because funding for that work is siphoned off to pay for fighting fires.

Wildfire preparedness and suppression costs now account for nearly half the Forest Service's budget, said Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. The total devoted to that work has jumped from $1.6 billion in 1994 to $3.9 billion in 2014.

Seven of the worst fire seasons in the last half century have occurred since 2000, said Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited. Fifty percent of the nation’s blue-ribbon fisheries cross Forest Service lands, Wood said.

All the witnesses at the hearing said they support bipartisan legislation proposed by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would end “fire-borrowing” –  shifting funds out of programs that improve the quality of forest lands to pay for fighting fires. Under the proposal, money to fight the most severe fires would come from emergency funds used for other natural disasters.

“The U.S. Forest Service is indeed becoming the U.S. fire service,” Dessecker said.

A total of $700 million was shifted this season by the Forest Service into its firefighting account, but a stopgap spending bill that provided funding for the government through Dec. 11 included extra money to cover that amount. […]

Chris Treese, with the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a board member of the National Water Resources Association, testified national forest lands are the largest source of water in the country.

“Catastrophic fires … threaten the reliability, volume, and quality of water for tens of millions of Americans,” Treese said.

Post-fire water supplies often contain suspended material, metals, and high nutrient loads, turning clear mountain streams to the color of coffee, he said. Erosion associated with severe fires was the primary reason Denver Water spent an extra $27 million over the past decade to produce clean water, Treese said.

Ken Stewart, board chairman for the American Forest Foundation, highlighted a recent report released by the group that demonstrates the risk to water supplies in the West caused by forest fires.

Stewart said two-thirds of the West’s water supply is cleaned and stored by forests. “This natural filtration and storage is essential for no less than 64 million westerners who rely on surface water flowing from forested headwaters,” he said. [more]

Conservation groups describe devastation caused by wildfires

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