The Forest Service would have at least double timber harvesting and give local counties and schools 25 percent of the money it earns under the terms of a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last week.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) co-sponsored the bill that seeks to reduce wildfire risk by effectively waiving key environmental laws and barring lawsuits and administrative appeals for many timber projects.
The bill passed through the Republican-controlled House on a vote of 244 to 173, but faces an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Senate. The House currently has 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats.
House Resolution 1526 would require the federal government to set up “Forest Reserves” in every national forest. Those reserves would have to guarantee a certain amount of logging each year, roughly doubling the current rate of timber harvest.
A long list of industry groups and local officials backed the bill, including the Gila County Board of Supervisors. Proponents argued the bill will reduce wildfire danger and provide money for rural schools by reversing the long decline of ranching and logging.
Most of the major national environmental groups opposed the bill. Opponents said the bill would turn large stretches of forests into tree farms and cattle ranches, at the expense of other uses like recreation, camping, hiking and tourism. They maintained that the bill’s sweeping provisions barring lawsuits and administrative appeals of timber sales and grazing permits aren’t legal and would unhinge forest management practices while barring public input.
The Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act stands in contrast to consensus efforts like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which has backing from both environmentalists and logging groups and focuses timber harvesting and thinning projects on small trees that have grown to unnatural densities on millions of acres of land in the West.
Gosar hailed passage of the bill that he helped author. “We have a forest health crisis in this country and this jobs bill goes a long way towards restoring the environment and improving public safety and putting people back to work. If we don’t thin our forests, Mother Nature will do it for us by catastrophic wildfire. The consequences of forest mismanagement cost Arizonans’ property, natural resources, wildlife and economic growth.”
Gosar’s congressional district includes all of Rim Country and about 48,000 acres of forested land.
However, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) raised questions about whether HR 1526 represented the best solution.
He said, the bill will “dramatically alter the way we manage our national forest system and would threaten the multi-use mission on our public lands. Federal forest managers would be required to allow logging and road building in current roadless areas and sharply curtail public review of proposed logging projects. The bill would close the courthouse door to citizens concerned about their communities and quality of life in the neighboring forests by requiring plaintiffs to post bonds, a new precedent, in order to challenge federal management decisions. The bill would also devolve national forest management current under the stewardship of the Forest Service to state boards and exempt these areas from major national environmental laws. The practical effect would be to reverse 100 years of national forest precedent and undermine — or in some cases eliminate — multiple use of the national forest over substantial parts of our forest, harming recreation, hunting, fishing and tourism.”
However, the Congressional Record includes the testimony of a long parade of local officials pleading for both protection from wildfires and the financial boost they would receive from their share of the logging revenues.
Most supporters of the bill described it as a necessary change in forest management immobilized by lawsuits and appeals.
Logging has dropped by an estimated 80 percent in recent decades and many mills have shut down. Some blame environmental lawsuits intended to protect endangered species and the remaining old-growth trees. But other research suggests that while appeals and lawsuits stopped or delayed many timber sales, the economics of logging changed after decades of logging claimed most of the big trees. Although forest densities in Arizona have gone from about 50 trees per acre to about 1,000 trees per acre in the past century, only an estimated 3 percent of the remaining trees are big, old-growth trees.
Researchers from the Northern Arizona University have concluded that overgrazing and fire suppression played the key role in the transformation of Arizona’s forests from a fire-adapted ecosystem to a crown-fire-prone tree thicket. Cattle ate most of the grass that once carried frequent, low-intensity ground fires and the Forest Service went all out for decades to stop any fires that did get started, according to those studies.
Supporters of H.B. 1526 maintained the establishment of the logging reserves and restrictions on lawsuits and appeals will restore forest health and reduce wildfire danger.
Gosar said the bill would increase timber sales three-fold and bolster local schools and counties with their 25 percent share of the revenue.
“We have to protect our people and the assets today. These provide an expedited arrangement to streamline thinning and grazing projects needed in immediate at-risk areas like our forest communities, critical water delivery and electrical infrastructures and our schools. The solutions in our bill are supported by nearly every county in my rural district, in particular Yavapai and Gila counties and many affected stakeholders, including the Cattlemen, the Natural Resources Conservation District and the Farm Bureau.”
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colorado) noted that last year was the worst wildfire year in Colorado history, followed this year by the Black Forest Fire, which consumed 486 homes and did $85 million in damage. He said the Forest Service now spends $2 billion annually fighting fires and only $300 million on hazardous fuels reduction.
“Instead of ramping up forest management efforts and addressing hazardous conditions of the Western forests, the Interior Department is proposing a 48 percent cut agency-wide for hazardous fuels reduction for 2014 and the Forest Service is reducing this proactive management by 24 percent.”
Rep. Richard Hastings (R-Washington) said that the bill would produce 200,000 jobs and $400 million in taxpayer savings.
“While the Forest Service once received $2 for every $1 it spent — it now spends $2 for every $1 it produces. Federal regulations and lawsuits have effectively shut down our national forests.”
He noted that last year 9.3 million acres burned nationwide, but the Forest Service harvested just 200,000 acres. “That means 44 times more acres burned compared to those areas that were responsibly harvested. We cannot sit idly by while wildfires rage, homes are destroyed, and lives are lost.”