A bill making its way through Congress would ostensibly protect our communities from wildfires. But it really would do more to enrich the timber industry keen on harvesting more trees from federal lands.
Over the past two years, the US Congress has conducted at least eight hearings on forest fires and the US Forest Service’s (USFS) supposed lack of resources to tackle them. But it hadn’t moved on any legislation to deal with the problem until last fall, when the House passed a measure that blames the increase in the size and intensity of forest fires in recent years on a “decrease in timber production” that is leaving too much deadwood and trees that serve as fuel for the flames. The legislative solution? Make it easier for the timber industry to haul away the trees.
Last November, Members of Congress, many of whose campaigns are bankrolled by the logging industry, pushed the Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2017 (H.R. 2936) through the House. The bill purports to streamline the ability of USFS and the Bureau of Land Management to “return resilience to overgrown, fire-prone forested lands, and for other purposes” by expediting the environmental review process. In reality, the bill would allow these federal entities to bypass environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act and reduce the ability of citizens to challenge forest management projects and seek judicial relief.
The House passed the bill on a near party-line vote, with ten Democrats joining the Republican majority.
If the bill were to become law, it would undermine key environmental laws that protect our national forests. It would allow agencies to conduct timber sales after wildfires without requiring standard environmental review — in some instances, on parcels up to 10,000 acres (existing law caps this figure at 250 acres). In addition, it would establish a “State-Supported Forest Management Fund” that could use federal money to pay for timber sales.
The bill would also limit the agency’s consideration of alternatives for some Forest Service activities, including post-wildfire logging, to only two options — a proposed action — for example, logging to remove so-called “deadwood” — and taking no action. The USFS would also have to consider the effect of “no action” on the timber industry. (Traditionally, federal land plans list several options beside the “no action” alternative, sometimes designating one as the “preferred alternative.”) The bill would also allow for logging and road building in currently protected areas. At present, USFS must consider the impact of building new logging roads on local water quality and wildlife in these areas.
Additionally, the legislation would mandate that at least half the grants provided by the Secure Rural Schools grants program to counties that participated in federal timber support programs over the preceding five years be dedicated to timber-related activities such as the “sale of forest products,” including wood, and redirect a $4 million research and development program to fund commercial building construction projects that use wood.
The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry received the bill on November 2 of last year. Committee staff, who asked not to be identified, as is current congressional procedure in talking to reporters, says that Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) has yet to place the legislation on the committee’s agenda, but hasn’t ruled out doing so. Meanwhile, some Republican members tried unsuccessfully to incorporate portions of the bill into the omnibus appropriations bill President Trump signed into law in February.
The timber industry has expressed strong support for the bill. In House testimony last September, Lawson Fite, general counsel of the American Forest Resource Council, stated that the bill “can mitigate the horrific effects of catastrophic fire and restore the health of forests and rural communities.” The council represents the forest products industry.
In an interview with this reporter, Fite said that while “it is hard to quantify” how much logging the bill would spur, “many of the reforms in the bill would certainly help streamline the planning process, help the economies in rural communities and improve health and safety of our forests,” as well as increase lumber yield. “More lumber means more jobs,” he said.
The timber trade has clearly put its money where its mouth is: H.R. 2936 was pushed through the House by representatives whose campaigns are bankrolled by the logging industry. According to Open Secrets, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) — the bill’s chief sponsor — received $85,923 in campaign cash from the forestry industry in 2017, though this wasn’t even an election year. Notably, only House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) received more cash from logging interests last year. Westerman received $92,936 in timber contributions during his previous campaign.
Cosponsor Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) received $123,023 from timber interests during his current and 2016 campaign cycles. Other cosponsoring beneficiaries in the current and last campaign included: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-OR), $108,170; Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), $24,900; Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL.), $49,139; and Dan Newhouse (R-WA), $39,500. (Figures cited from Open Secrets include contributions from individuals and political action committees donating at least $200.)
The truth is that few of the measures included in H.R. 2936 would actually help prevent or reduce the scale of wildfires if they are adopted. Several forest ecologists say the bill ignores wildfire science.
“It’s not that the Republican Congress does not understand the science. They just don’t care to learn,” says Chad Hanson, cofounder of the Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project, which advocates for the ecological management of forestlands, especially ones that have been severely degraded and damaged by decades of commercial logging and fire suppression measures. “They care mostly about commodity production, and they aren’t concerned about forest ecosystems or whether their policies drive species into extinction.”
Though the Forest Service says clearing dead wood and clear-cutting fire-damaged forest reduces the risk of future fires, that argument is contradicted by studies that have shown fire-damaged trees do not add to the risk of future fires and that burned forests (also called “snag forests”) are key habitats for owls, woodpeckers and small mammals. (Read the Journal’s special report about the ecological importance of wildfires and the industry built around suppressing them.)
Testifying on the bill, Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for the Geos Institute, an Oregon-based group specializing in climate change, stated that “proposals that call for increased logging and decreased environmental review in response to wildfire and insect outbreaks are not science driven, in many cases may make problems worse, and will not stem rising wildfire suppression costs.”
Thinning forests won’t stop winds and other weather conditions from spreading fire, he said. Removing dead wood can backfire too, DellaSala added, by killing seedlings, compacting soil, and eliminating the most fire-resistant trees.
House members opposing the bill were of the same opinion as DellaSala. The minority report on the bill reads: “Rather than acknowledge the role of climate change, or focus on a targeted approach that would actually improve community safety, the House Republican answer to forest management is to eliminate environmental review and do away with public oversight in order to expedite commercial timber sales.”
“We think it is just a prime example of using fear of fire as justification for ramping up the logging level,” said Matt Rasmussen of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE). “Fire is a natural and necessary component of forests. What people see as decay may actually be a very rich habitat,” as dead wood provides homes to many plants, insects, and other animals. “It seems counterintuitive but studies show forests that have been actively managed are actually more fire-prone than those that are not,” Rasmussen noted. FSEEE, instead, favors clearing fire-prone tinder near buildings to keep homes safe from wildfires.