Forest thinning projects near communities should be exempt from the cumbersome environmental planning requirements that can delay action for years, Gov. Janet Napolitano told a congressional committee Tuesday.
Napolitano also called for increased federal funding for forest treatments to allow thinning to be extended beyond developed areas and deeper into the woods.
Both positions drew a sharp rebuke from environmentalists.
With nearly 1 million acres in Arizona burned since 2000, Napolitano said Congress needs to act quickly to appropriate adequate funds to thin the forests and streamline the time-consuming planning and hearing processes dictated in federal law. She made her remarks in testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and later in a telephone news conference.
While Napolitano backed efforts to create a faster and more efficient mechanism for planning forest thinning, she said reforming the process will be meaningless unless more money is appropriated by Congress. For the last three years, the U.S. Forest Service budget for forest thinning nationally has been stuck at $186 million per year, Napolitano said.
"All the procedural reform in the world will not cure this problem unless there is an agreement by the Congress to put more new resources into thinning projects," Napolitano said.
Napolitano reiterated earlier statements that immediate efforts should focus on emergency treatments near communities, which are known as the "wildland-urban interface." That is the most effective short-term defense for people and property, she said.
Projects to thin forests in those areas should not have to go through the normal planning process required by the National Environmental Policy Act, which entails detailed environmental studies, extensive public hearings and an appeals process that can block implementation, Napolitano said. The definition of what would be included in the wildland-urban interface would have to be developed with extensive public involvement, and would likely vary depending on specific conditions of each community, she said.
"In those areas, given the public safety aspects, the NEPA process is not called for," she said.
But simply creating a narrow band of thinned forests around communities is not sufficient to protect them from runaway wildfires, she said. Forest treatments need to extend deeper into the forests to restore overall health, and protect such things as watersheds and wildlife habitats, she said.
Those projects beyond developed areas should go through the normal procedures under the act, but those procedures also should be streamlined to pare down the delays normally associated with planning a thinning project, she said.
Kieran Suckling of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity said Napolitano’s proposal to exempt areas in the wildland-urban interface from normal procedures is "very upsetting."
The act’s process is where concerns about proposed agency actions typically are resolved, either through public hearings or through administrative appeals, Suckling said. Bypassing those procedures leaves environmentalists or others who want to contest an agency’s action no alternative but to sue, which ends up creating even longer delays, he said.
"It sounds to me like she’s completely waffling," Suckling said of the governor’s statements, adding her proposal to exempt wildland-urban interface areas from the act is "completely counterproductive, unnecessary and extremely inflammatory."
"Getting rid of NEPA doesn’t mean you’re not going to get sued," he said. "In fact, you are far more likely to be sued. If you’ve eliminated all public processes except lawsuits, all you’re doing is encouraging lawsuits. Lawsuits become the one and only interaction you have."
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate committee, said there are already provisions in law that allow some projects near communities to be exempted from the normal process through "categorical exclusions." Those exemptions need to be used more extensively by land management agencies, he said.