Concerns that global warming might change the makeup of North American forests and increase the risk of wildfires could fan the flames for congressional action on forest management.

At an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday, Western senators lamented the Forest Service’s pace in treating at-risk forests since the Healthy Forests Restoration Act passed four years ago. They noted wildfires continue to burn millions of acres and cost the federal government billions of dollars, with no end in sight, and some blamed global warming.

“It is clear from the science that climate change is driving the dramatic growth in wildfire activity, and that it is likely to get worse,” said committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

The hearing was the first to specifically consider the effect of rising temperatures on wildfire activity, though Bingaman noted the issue came up at a hearing 27 years ago.

Forest Service and academic models predict large changes in fire regimes and vegetation patterns, tying rising temperatures to longer and hotter summer wildfire seasons and the spread of invasive species and diseases.

“Research indicates that a warming climate will increase fire hazard, likely leading to increases in the annual area burned as well as in the severity of fires,” said Susan Conard, Forest Service national program leader for fire ecology research.

Conard’s testimony appeared to deliver a sense of urgency to the issue, a point not lost on Bingaman.

“It’s high time our federal land management agencies begin to factor in the effects of climate change,” Bingaman told E&E Daily. “It sounds like they’re just getting started.”

No specific follow-up measure is planned at the moment, Bingaman said, but his comments come as the House-passed energy bill includes provisions that would force land management agencies to address the effects of global warming on federal lands, oceans and water infrastructure. The intra-agency panel would be charged with developing a common protocol for considering climate change in resource management decisions.

The House bill also includes language that would force the Interior Department and other agencies to establish a national program to mitigate the effects of climate change on wildlife populations and apply those findings to day-to-day management strategies.

Healthy Forests and Emissions:

Wildfires have burned about 2 million acres of land in Idaho this year, releasing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

“The folks in my state got a very bitter lesson this year,” Craig said. “My state was nearly gray all summer because its skies was filled with smoke and with carbon.”

Preventing wildfires could be the equivalent of removing millions of automobiles from the road, Craig said. “If we decided to engage fire once again, both in stopping it where we can and creating a healthy forest environment where we could … we could come closer to removing 12 million automobiles from the roads than ever before,” he added.

Thomas Swetnam, director of the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research and professor of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona, sounded a warning note. “I personally don’t think we can thin our way out of this problem,” Swetnam said, urging increased use of prescribed burns and removal of small-diamater trees and brush.

Swetnam is a co-author of a report published in the journal Science last year that found global warming is responsible for creating warmer springs, exacerbating large wildfires and making forest management techniques such as thinning and fire suppression ineffective.

Forests Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) says the Bush administration needs to move ahead with thinning projects and stop blaming lawsuits. “The litigation stems from the fact the administration wants to cut old growth,” Wyden said in an interview.

Wyden said he will look at legislative and funding options to help.

Despite the rhetoric yesterday, Craig said afterwards he thinks prospects for congressional action on forest policy before next year’s elections are slim. “It’s too politically charged,” Craig said.

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