MONTROSE – Preaching to the converted, three Republican U.S. Congressmen held a “joint oversight field hearing” in Montrose on Monday, May 14, to discuss beetle-killed trees, forest management, and the survival of the remaining sawmills in Colorado and elsewhere in the West.
The meeting was suggested by freshman Colorado Representative Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) and chaired, alternately, by veteran Utah Congressman, and Tea Party Caucus member, Rob Bishop, and two-term California Representative Tom McClintock, an anti-tax maverick whose district includes a huge swath of the Northern Sierra Nevada. McClintock is chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power. Bishop is chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. All three congressmen hammered the same message: that liberal ideologies and lawsuits by environmental groups had created what Tipton called “the West’s Katrina.”
The hearing bore the title: “Logs in the Road: Eliminating Federal Red Tape and Excessive Litigation to Create Healthy Forests, Jobs and Abundant Water and Power Supplies.”
As of press time, inquiries to Rep. Tipton’s office had not been answered regarding whether or not legislation has been proposed in the House to address any of these issues.
The two-hour hearing included no comments from the audience, which filled to overflowing the upstairs meeting hall in the Montrose Elks Civic Building. The congressmen did hear testimony from nine pre-selected witnesses, who had previously submitted written testimony to the subcommittees.
McClintock opened the proceedings with a speech about how “Montrose bears the wounds of the ‘Greens Gone Wild’ policies of the last two decades.” He blamed “radical retrograde ideology for the benign neglect of our forests, for closed timber mills, unemployment, wildfires, rampant disease and pestilence . . . The so-called environmental movement,” he fumed, “has created a tangle of overregulation and litigation” that stymies doing the right thing, namely opening up more federal forest lands to logging.
Bishop and McClintock were interrupted by repeated outbursts of approval from the crowd, which included representatives of the logging and trucking industries, off-highway vehicle groups, Forest Service employees, and members of Montrose city and county governments. After one such outburst, Bishop chided semi-seriously, “You must not like what I say.” Then, with a smile, “And you must not dislike what I say.”
The biggest cheer came when McClintock said to one witness, “I’m not putting words in your mouth. But you are saying, are you not, that this crisis is not a result of an act of God. It’s a result of acts of government . . . Frankly, I challenge the Republican majority in the House to end this nonsense!”
“Interesting,” said hearing attendee Marv Ballantyne, a longtime member of the Uncompahgre Valley Association. “Interesting that it was 10:45 a.m. before the term climate change was mentioned. Does that have anything to do with the beetles?”
Ballantyne commented on the difficult position witness Dan Jiron found himself in. Jiron is Regional Director for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service, based in Golden. While the congressmen berated the USFS for not opening up more more forests, faster, to logging, Jiron walked the line between the evident politics in the room and the fact that his agency receives both its direction and its funding from an ever-shifting Congress.
“He was in the lion’s den, wasn’t he,” Ballantyne said.
Two witnesses did tout recent collaborative efforts to address both forest health and the logging industry locally.
Sloan Shoemaker of the Wilderness Workshop and the Bark Beetle Cooperative, based in Carbondale, talked about a recent agreement hammered out with various stakeholders, including “industry and some very conservative county commissioners,” to harvest beetle-killed trees in northern Colorado. He said there has been $70 million allocated from Washington, D.C., to “get these projects done,” and that “collaboration is the grease that can get things going.”
Leigh Robertson, of the Uncompahgre Partnership, based in Ridgway, described as a significant success the Uncompahgre Project, a 10-year joint effort by the USFS, Colorado State University, the Uncompahgre Project, conservation groups, powerline transmission companies and the forest products industry, that has and will continue to treat tens of thousands of acres per year on the Uncompahgre Plateau.
Unimpressed, Rep. Bishop said, “This is not a new problem. We know what we need to do, but we’re flat out not doing it.
“Collaboration is the new word. Transparency was the old word. I am frustrated with this lack of work . . . Once again, don’t like what I say.”
The Forest Service’s Jiron said, “We are absolutely committed to increase this work.”
Nancy Fishering spoke as vice president of the Colorado Timber Industry Association, and as an advocate for Intermountain Industries in Montrose, one of two remaining large mills in the state. She pointed out that most of the beetle-killed trees were lodgepole pines, which, as the name implies, are too small in diameter to make good saw logs. She emphasized the need for harvesting large-diameter trees. Bishop asked her if Colorado’s “designated” lands, by which he meant wilderness, National Parks, roadless study areas, etc., made it impossible to find enough harvestable trees. Fishering said, No, “I still believe we can strategically market. We found plenty of acres we could treat on the Front Range.”
Tipton concluded the hearing on a conciliatory note, thanking Democratic Senator Mark Udall for his work in bringing attention to the bark beetle problem.
“It is time we take active steps to reverse some of the damage that has been done,” Tipton said. “To create jobs, restore and protect precious habitats and water supplies, preserve our scenic natural beauty, reinvigorate local economies . . .”
Immediately on the close of the hearing, a Tipton staffer handed out a two-page press release as attendees passed through the door. The release detailed how the joint oversight hearing had that morning been implored by witnesses to end the “federal obstructionism” and restore “effective management” to Colorado’s forests.