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Pombo: Using wisdom in managing our forests

Deadly to both man and beast, the inferno that tore through much of Southern California in October sterilized the landscape. Lives were lost, wildlife decimated, homes destroyed, and many people were left with no means of making a living for their families.

Sadly, tribes were among the hardest-hit by the wildfires. At least 10 tribes in Southern California were severely impacted. The San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians lost 67 of 68 homes. And on the San Manuel reservation, 98 percent of the vegetation was destroyed.

While the destruction cannot be reversed, we can and must work to prevent it from ever happening again. Over 70 million acres are at extreme risk to catastrophic wildfire in the United States. The unintended result of 100 years of aggressive fire suppression policy is a decades-long build up forest fuel, woody biomass and dense underbrush that's as close as the next lightning strike from exploding into another massive conflagration.

Many of our national forests used to be tribal lands and in some cases were even created without consent of the affected tribe. The recent wildfires were some of the worst in history, and tribes could do little except stand by as brush and dead trees on neighboring federal lands increased, literally fueling the catastrophic fires. Also in ashes are thousands of acres of valuable timber on Indian reservations, the economic linchpin for some tribes.

As wildfires, disease, and infestation do not respect boundary lines separating tribal and federal lands, several reservations now look like moonscapes. One look at a map depicting National Forest System lands and Indian reservations reveals the extent to which the two land systems share common boundaries. Dozens if not hundreds of tribes are rich in forest resources, yet the health of these forests and the Indian people who depend on them for a variety of needs are at risk.

The recently penned Healthy Forests Restoration Act, signed into law in November, is an important step toward restoring the health of all our forests. Management techniques can now be utilized without fear that unnecessary government red tape will halt them. Burdensome environmental rules have effectively enabled radical environmental groups to stop forest management projects. They even blocked efforts to clear the brush and dead trees that make wildfires explode.

However, a critical element was missing from this landmark law. A provision granting forest management contracts to tribes with lands adjacent to our national forests was left out of the final bill. Such stewardship contracts, as they are called, from the U.S. Forest Service would generate economic development for Indian and local communities, and reduce the threat of wildfire, disease, and insect infestation to tribal property.

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Tribes should have a primary role in reducing threats to their land. As Chairman of the House Committee on Resources, I will make the enactment of tribal stewardship contracting legislation a priority in 2004. The bill would direct the Secretary of Agriculture (who ultimately manages lands in the National Forest System) to offer contracts to interested tribes for forest management projects adjacent to Indian lands. The contracts would be aimed primarily at lands that are unnaturally overgrown and where the risk of wildfire is high.

Over 90 tribes support stewardship contracting. Many tribes are active in timber management and contracting, and have demonstrated they should take part in realizing the goals of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. It will mean jobs for Indian members and revenues for tribal governments, with ripple effects across local communities off the reservations.

My staff visited the Hoopa Valley tribe this past summer and was extremely impressed with a forest management plan that puts many national forest lands to shame. It was carefully balanced and uniquely tailored to the needs of the tribe, protecting sacred sites and sensitive wildlife areas, yet generating prosperity and jobs. Compared to many units of the national forests, where balance is a foreign word, this tribe will benefit greatly from their responsible approach.

The Indian Energy Title of the energy bill still pending in Congress offers us a model to study for improving policies affecting tribes interested in implementing timber programs that better serves their members' needs. This title gives tribes the option to pursue self-governance for energy projects - wind, solar, oil, gas, or electric power plants or pipelines. Under current law, a tribe must secure approval for each and every lease and contract for energy projects from the Secretary of Interior. The result has been delay and red tape resulting in no projects and discouraging future investors from doing business with tribes.

The energy bill allows a tribe to opt into a different regime in which it develops a complete energy regulatory program, secures approval from the Secretary, and then enters into leases and contracts with no further interference from Washington bureaucrats.

This blueprint may also work for timber projects on tribal land. If tribal forest management is aimed at increasing populations of wild fish and game, then a tribal regulatory regime should reflect this without burdensome federal intrusion, respecting our government-to-government relationship. If the tribe's priority is to maximize value from timber, then likewise, federal rules should not stand in the way after the tribe offers a sound plan.

Awarding stewardship contracts to tribes will empower those living closest to the land to actively maintain our national forests and reduce the risk of catastrophic fire from occurring in the future. Until now, we have tolerated increasing risk and disease. Reducing dangerous fuel loads on the forest floor not only creates economic opportunity, but it also reverses dangerous trends in our national forests and allows us the ability to actively protect our homes and livelihoods.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a Republican from the 11th district in California, has been a member of Congress since 1992. On Jan. 8, 2003 he was voted chairman of the House Resources Committee. As chairman, he has jurisdiction over Indian Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives.