RBI Deputy Director testifies before Congress

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Ken Stewart, deputy director of Georgia Tech’s Renewable Bioproducts Institute (RBI), said the wildfire threat in the West is not just a public lands issue, citing that more than one-third of the lands with high fire threat are private and family land and more than 40 percent are in critical watersheds.

Stewart testified before the U.S. Senate, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry’s hearing on “Wildfire: Stakeholder Perspectives on Budgetary Impacts and Threats to Natural Resources on Federal, State and Private Lands.” He also serves as Chair of the American Forest Foundation (AFF), which represents more than 22 million family landowners in the U.S.

His comments highlighted the impacts of wildfire felt far outside the West, including here in Georgia, where Stewart has served as the state’s Economic Development Commissioner. During his tenure in 2007, Stewart said Georgia saw the largest wildfire in its history, burning more than 560,000 acres in Georgia and Florida and causing more than $60 million in damages.

“Even as wildfire costs are consuming more and more of the Forest Service budget, the Agency has also, in 8 of the last 15 years, still run out of firefighting funds before the end of the fiscal year, forcing the Agency to ‘borrow’ from other programs,” he said. “The impact on states like Georgia and on private and family landowners across the country, especially in the South, is significant. With the shrinking budgets and the disruptive borrowing, programs that provide private and family landowners with technical assistance to get ahead of wildfire problems are significantly short changed.

There are other non-fire impacts as well. Programs that help detect and prevent spread of invasive and native insect and disease issues, like the hemlock wooly adelgid or the Syrex Wood Wasp are also impacted. In 2012, due to the fire borrowing, a multi-state effort to improve forest resilience, which included significant coordination across states, was cancelled.

“The impact is not just on programs that provide assistance to private and family landowners. Important research and development efforts, such as those that help stimulate new markets and infrastructure to support the needed restoration treatments on the landscape, are also stymied by this fire funding issue,” he said.

“The good news is this — we know how to reduce wildfire threats and protect water supplies; we know that the solution needs to include both public and private lands in a landscape approach; and we know private landowners are willing to take action if we can help address their biggest barriers. We also know how to fix the problems with how wildfire fighting is paid for at the federal level.”

He cites a set of solutions including changing the way wildfire fighting is funded at the federal level, a landscape approach with coordination between both public and private lands with authorities, and finally, catalyzing infrastructure to support the needed restoration work on the ground. 

“Catalyzing infrastructure, including mills, loggers, foresters, that can work on both public and private lands to remove the restoration by-products and make use of these byproducts, will go a long way towards reducing treatment costs,” Stewart said. “Concentrating public investments to support infrastructure where the work is happening on public and private lands, will mean a better return on the investment.”

Additionally, public investments are needed to encourage research and development in new market uses of restoration by-products, he said, such as nanocellulosic technologies, new building technologies that use wood, and biomass energy technologies, many of which are included in the research portfolio of Georgia Tech and RBI.

To read the transcript of Mr. Stewart’s testimony, click here.

To read AFF’s Wildfire and Water report, click here.


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