On November 1st, 2017 the House of Representatives voted 232 to 188 to pass House Resolution 2936. This is the second house bill that has passed in the last couple of years having to do with National Forests. It’s important that the issue is on the national radar. It is unfortunate that the bill wasn’t passed with more bipartisan support. The vote was with yes votes coming from 222 Republicans and 10 Democrats. That leaves no votes from 179 Democrats and 9 Republicans.
So why isn’t this bill more universally supported? After reading the language that passed it has a great deal of focus on Categorical Exclusions (CE) in Subtitle B. Here are the reasons for each CE:
- expedite certain critical response actions
- expedite salvage operations
- to meet forest plan goals for early successional forests
- for roadside projects
- to improve or restore National Forest System Lands or public land or reduce the risk of wildfire
Essentially each of these CE’s can be up to 10,000 acres in size. The exception to this is if the project is developed using a collaborative process it can be expanded to 30,000 acres. This is a pretty large leap since prior to this the max is 3,000 acres. In our collaborative work, we’ve rarely seen CE’s larger than 250 acres. I’m not entirely sure who is providing the advice that CE’s are such a good idea.
Why are groups concerned?
As I read the rest of the bill, I am starting to see why it doesn’t carry more support. Many conservation groups will say that this bill undermines much of the environmental safeguards that are currently in place. You see, a CE means that the project is Categorically Excluded from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Collaboratives will still be involved in the process, but it prevents a legal challenge while shortening the process from idea to implementation.
From the forest industry perspective, this might sound good. In fact, it could lead to more volume being offered faster. Unfortunately, it may make some groups reluctant to stay at the collaborative table. In the short term, this might not seem like the end of the world. To me, it’s like rolling the dice. If these projects start reflecting a heavy-handed approach that isn’t supportable by conservation groups, then it will erode well-earned support and dissolve into a battle once again.
Will this make Forests Resilient?
I’ve met with many of the members of the committee that generated this bill, including Bruce Westerman. I was impressed with his demeanor and knowledge. He’s the only degreed Forester in the House of Representatives. What seemed to be missing is a firm grasp on the collaborative success that’s been going on in much of the intermountain west. I know the intentions were very well placed. That said, I know it’s going to face significant opposition as it moves to the Senate. I will continue to develop these relationships in the hopes that input from over 15 years of successful collaboration will have more influence on legislative language.
I think we need to re-examine our interests here. We need to figure out what it is that we are trying to achieve. If the goal is to turn the tide and use the Republican majority while it’s in place to manage more of our National Forests, then this could be a big step in that direction. If the goal is to create a long-term, sustainable process that will be a legacy for the next century I think it will miss the mark.
What I see
Here’s my opinion. We need to make some serious changes to the Forest Service, but we need to do it in a way that honors the interests of our citizens and communities. We have dire forest health issues and major threats to our forest and communities. What we need to do is work to leverage the momentum that has been started in so many communities that are focused on collaboration. We need to look at new ways to fix dispute resolution. This bill attempts to do that with limitations on legal challenges and a pilot for arbitration. I fear this will be more of a threat to collaboration than support. We have enough momentum to build a bill that will work for most Americans, including most conservation groups. This bill, unfortunately, will not be seen this way.
My hope is that something will result from the Senate that will bring the balance more toward the middle without sacrificing the scale of active management needed to address our issues. If that can’t be reached, it’s my concern that this bill will end up much like the last bill that passed the house. I’ve always said that it’s better to have 70% of what you’d like by learning to compromise that staying firm in your position and ending up with zero.
We need to move towards an Abundant Mentality rather than one of scarcity. If we can do that, people will see that we can get much more from our forests in every aspect. That’s the vision that has propelled our work on the Colville National Forest and should be the catalyst for all of our Nation’s forests; to do and provide more for the people and the forest.