By Frank Lockwood
Posted: May 30, 2016 at 1 a.m.
The House amended the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016, adding the language of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2016. The energy legislation, with the forestry provisions attached, cleared the House on Wednesday.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, the only federal lawmaker with a graduate degree in forestry, drafted the bill and says changes to federal forest management are long overdue.
Arkansas has 19 million acres of forest. Thirteen percent of that — roughly 2.5 million acres — is on federal land, state forestry officials say.
“I’m excited that we could actually get this legislation in place that has a positive effect on the ground for the way we manage forests in this country,” Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs, said in an interview.
Westerman’s legislation is opposed by the Wilderness Society, which says it “would undermine important environmental laws and increase unsustainable logging in our national forests.”
“Unfortunately, Rep. Westerman’s bill would not make forests ‘resilient’ at all, and it would not meaningfully address our … crisis. What it would do is freeze the public out of the land management process, eliminate environmental review of logging projects and put wildlife habitat at risk,” the group said in a written statement.
In 2015, 56,000 fires burned more than 10.1 million acres of forest in the United States, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack. The cost to put out the fires topped $2.6 billion, Vilsack announced in January.
Most of that money is spent out West.
Higher average temperatures, combined with drought in California and other western states, resulted in the most costly fire season the nation has ever witnessed.
The typical firefighting season for 2016 is 78 days longer than it was in 1970, according to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
And as the fire season lengthens, its costs have soared.
In 1995, U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its budget on fire suppression. By 2015, that figure had jumped to 52 percent. If the trend continues, firefighting will consume 67 percent of the budget by 2025.
Officials are predicting that this year’s fire season will also be costly.
In California alone, there are 40 million dead trees that pose fire risks, including 29 million that dried up and died last year in the drought, Vilsack said this month, according to The Associated Press.
Struggling to pay for the firefighting costs, the Forest Service resorts to “borrowing” money from its other accounts. Money that would otherwise be spent on long-term forest management instead is used to cover near-term fire suppression costs.
In a December letter to lawmakers, Vilsack warned the Forest Service had been hobbled by its “untenable budget situation.”
Earlier last year, two dueling pieces of legislation were introduced to address the problem.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, would allow the department to seek extra money to pay for catastrophic fires, those that are largest and do the most damage.
Disaster funding would only be available in any given year once fire suppression costs exceed 70 percent of the 10-year average.
“Today the Forest Service suppresses 98 percent-99 percent of the fires it tries to put out on initial attack. Only one or two percent of fires escalate into out-of-control catastrophic fires, but these fires make up 30 percent of the costs for fire suppression,” Simpson explains on his House website.
Simpson’s proposal, which has 147 co-sponsors, is backed by the Obama administration and the Wilderness Society, but House leadership has not brought it up for a vote.
Westerman’s proposal also allows for extra spending, but only once the yearly fire suppression spending tops 100 percent of the 10-year average.
With both pieces of legislation, the agency would find it easier to seek more money when firefighting costs are way above normal.
Westerman’s legislation would also streamline environmental analyses, discourage litigation and limit the use of preliminary injunctions, steps to make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to execute management plans that include removing trees or brush, or selectively burning some areas to generate new growth.
In some instances, officials would be able to remove insect-infested, diseased or dead trees in national forests without performing the full environmental study currently mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act.
People who sued to block timber projects would be required to post bonds and to pay for the agency’s legal fees if the challenge is unsuccessful.
In July, the House voted 262-167 to pass Westerman’s bill, with 243 Republicans and 19 Democrats backing the legislation; 166 Democrats and one Republican voted against it.
In an interview, Westerman said his legislation will make the kinds of changes that are needed.
“There’s a multitude of reasons why it’s a good idea. It’ll promote healthy forests, which have no downsides. You get cleaner air, cleaner water, a better economy; you get better outdoor recreational opportunities,” he said.
The Senate version of the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016, which that chamber approved in April, didn’t have Westerman’s forestry bill attached to it.
A group of senators and representatives, collectively known as a “conference committee,” will meet later this year and hammer out the differences between the two versions of the legislation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Thursday he was appointing Westerman to the committee and stressed the importance of Westerman’s measure.
“We have a real wildfire problem because our nation’s forests are undermanaged and unhealthy, and that’s why Rep. Westerman’s Resilient Federal Forests Act — which tackles this root cause — is so vital to the energy bill,” he said in a written statement. “I thank him for his leadership and willingness to serve as a conferee on this important legislation.”
Arkansas State Forester Joe Fox said he hopes Westerman succeeds; Fox gives the legislation high marks.
“It’s a very good thing for the forests of Arkansas as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
The funding changes will help the state. When federal money gets shifted to firefighting, dollars that would help Arkansas forests get shifted elsewhere.
“Things don’t get done. Proactive management things don’t get done,” he said. “All of a sudden the federal funds we depend on stop.”
Fox said the bill would also make it easier to salvage wood. Trees knocked down by storms or scarred by fire are valuable, but only if harvested quickly, he said.
After six or eight months, “the wood’s bad. It can’t be used for anything.”
Under the current system, it takes longer than that to get regulatory approval. “By the time they have it all done, the wood’s ruined and not salvageable anymore,” he said.
As a result “it usually just gets left out there on the ground and then it becomes fuel for the next fire, so that’s a problem; a big problem,” he added.
NW News on 05/30/2016