The first meeting of a House panel on forest health Tuesday turned into a forum for lashing out at "radical environmentalists'' -- and, to an extent, the federal government -- as the cause of the size of the recent fires.
Republican Congressman Paul Gosar, asked to testify by state Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Safford, who chairs the special committee, said the state's commercial timber industry needs to be resurrected to deal with thousands of acres of "badly overgrown'' forests.
"But bureaucratic red tape, preventing the private sector from participating in the stewardship of our public lands, combined with the excessive litigation initiated by some extreme environmental groups, resulted in the loss of Arizona's timber industry and the jobs provided by the responsible management of our natural resources,'' he said.
Gosar said he is pushing for changes to federal law to cap the legal fees that environmental groups can collect when they successfully sue the government for violating environmental regulations.
That theme was more than echoed by Andy Groseta, the incoming president of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association. He said environmental groups have used federal laws and regulations to "create a paralysis'' within federal agencies, to the point where employees "can no longer manage their lands unless it's for the fish, the frog or the owl.'' That refers to various actions taken to protect the habitats of species.
"Did these radical environmentalists get a bill for the fire-fighting costs?'' he asked.
And Groseta said the time for talking with environmental groups is done. He said all the discussions since the last big fires have shown the only thing they will agree to is cutting only small-diameter trees and thinning of forests to protect communities.
But he said there are trees of all sizes in the forest.
"All of them need to be harvested selectively,'' he said. Similarly, Groseta said, there is a need to allow livestock to graze in the forests to reduce grasses and recover burned areas.
"They have had the past 10 years to collaborate,'' Groseta told lawmakers. "It's time for the cows and the chainsaws.''
State Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, said the solution to the problem of federal lawsuits and federal inaction is to let each state manage its own public lands.
Gosar said he already is thinking along the same lines.
"The federal government is subjugating both states and communities and people instead of working with them,'' he said. And Gosar said he thinks much of what is going on probably is illegal, pulling out his pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution.
"Last time I looked in this little book here, the only thing the federal government is allowed to own is D.C. itself,'' he said, referring to the District of Columbia.
Gosar conceded going back to that was unlikely in the near future. "But we can work together ... with the states and the communities and the resources,'' he said.
The rhetoric appeared to annoy the two Democrats on the five-member panel.
Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said he is open to looking at all possible options to improving Arizona's forest health.
"With all due respect to the congressman, however, to come here and hear attacks against certain interests without having any backup, to me is counterproductive to what we're trying to do,'' he said.
"To say 'extremist environmental groups,' excuse me, but I have no idea of what you're talking about or who you're talking about,'' Wheeler continued. "All I'm asking is that the rhetoric and the politics stay out of this committee.''
And Rep. Albert Hale, D-Window Rock, said Tuesday's hearing was just a one-sided view of the problem. He said Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act because corporations, interested primarily in their financial bottom line, paid little attention to what they were doing to public lands, "the resources of the people, resources that belong to the people.''
Hale said it may be that the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. But he said that lawmakers need to hear from all sides to make an intelligent decision of what to do now.
Barton promised to invite environmental interests the next time the panel meets.
After the hearing, Gosar defended the use of the phrase "radical environmentalists'' even as he said people need to sit down and figure out what to do next.
"I think that's letting the chips fall where they may,'' he said. He said while there are some "common sense environmental groups,'' others have taken the issue "too far.''
"We have to have protection of the environment,'' the congressman said. "But we also can't have this gridlock that takes six years in NEPA processes.''
Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr, who attended Tuesday's session, said she was not told about it sufficiently ahead of time to prepare the kind of testimony presented by others.
She disagreed with Groseta's analysis that there has been no compromise, saying that environmental groups seek to protect only "old growth'' forests and that 95 percent of all trees are 12 inch diameter or less, trees Bahr said should be trimmed.