Lawmakers on an Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee said Tuesday that road closures by the Forest Service could be partially to blame for wildfires ravaging the western part of the country.
“In my state of Arizona, we’ve had catastrophic wildfires. Before these road closures we didn’t have these wildfires,” said Republican Rep. Paul Gosar.
Air quality is also being compromised by the fires, according to Montana State House Rep. Kerry White. “Toxins in the smoke cause premature mortality. These fires are killing people.”
These forest fires are so hot they sterilize the soil, Gosar said. “What’s easier to mitigate, road erosion or soil sterilization?” Gosar asked the committee. It takes 50 years to replace the microbes lost in the sterilized soil, he said.
The Forest Service manages 200 million acres of land and more than 370,000 miles of roads, according to subcommittee chairman, Montana Republican Greg Gianforte. In his home state alone, the Forest Service has closed more than 21,000 miles of roads since the 1990s, nearly one third of all Forest Service roads in the state, Gianforte said.
On the economic side, each year Americans spend $7 billion on outdoor recreation, which creates 7.6 million American jobs, many of which rely on Forest Service roads for access, Gianforte said.
The communities surrounding Forest Service land are often not wealthy communities, and if you take a little bit of recreation and tourism away from them, they suffer immensely, said Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association.
Hunters can easily spend $1300-2000 in a weekend, Granat said. They stay in hotels and they spend time in restaurants, “They like to eat well, and go back to these communities often.”
The Forest Service itself was notably absent from the hearing. It could not be immediately reached for comment.
“Let’s have another hearing, and next time we need representatives from the Forest Service so that they can be held responsible for their actions,” said Gosar.