Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017

Resilient Forestry passed November 1 2017

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.

Forests need leadership
Lincoln represents solidarity and leadership

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?

A to Z Thinning
Collaborative efforts on the A to Z project on the Colville National Forest are making 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.

4 thoughts on “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017”

  1. Hi Russ, I’d like to take a stab at trying to alleviate concerns you and your readers may have concerning the use of categorical exclusions, which, by the way are included as a NEPA procedure. Like many issues, the media often doesn’t get their facts straight when it comes to what CE’s are. To save much space here I’d first recommend you and your readers read my October 23, 2016 Evergreen article titled: “Categorical Exclusions, De-Myth-tified”. The bottom line is that CEs do involve the public, require rigorous environmental analysis, and can be litigated but not appealed currently. Projects authorized under CEs also must pass a high bar of having no “extraordinary circumstances” in order to be utilized (read my article for full details). So people shouldn’t get hung up on the size of a project under a CE. For example, a CE used for roadside salvage and commercial use of forest products isn’t much more impactive than personal use firewood cutting from roadsides, and actually may be even less impactive because commercial harvest contracts are easier to administer than personal use permits.

    I have a recommendation for you: the next time you meet with your collaborative group, ask the local Forest Service the following questions: 1. How many acres on the Collville National Forest have had previous NEPA analysis and silvicultural prescriptions implemented for timber management projects? 2. How many times has NEPA been conducted on those same acres? 3. How many of those acres still haven’t completed recommended treatments on them as scheduled in the silvicultural prescriptions?

    I submit that the use of CEs in areas that fall within the above criteria should ONLY require the use of CEs, which will help increase the pace and scale of forest management on the suitable timber stands of our National Forests, and acreage limitations are not needed.

    https://www.evergreenmagazine.com/barry-wynsma-categorical-exclusions-de-myth-tified/

    Barry

    1. Barry,

      I haven’t been dodging you. I was waiting for our collaborative meeting with NEWFC held on Thursday before I responded to you.

      Let’s just say there’s a lot to this. And here’s why. The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition is probably as plugged in as any group with the FS. And our group doesn’t understand CE’s. We’re taking the steps to better understand that it’s actually part of NEPA and there may be ways that it can be helpful. It will however take time.

      I’ll also say that many in the Industry (maybe even most) don’t understand on the other end of the spectrum. There’s a belief that as long as CE’s are available then we can now just “go to work” and start managing forests. It’s not that easy either.

      I think we all need to take some time to understand what Categorical Exclusion means before we pour water or gasoline on this thing.

      Last thing, this bill was not written with collaboration leading it. I could have put some simple things in place that would have made it better just from my experience. Does congress need to check with me? No, of course not. People like me, however could help navigate the language so we could get easy bipartisan support. As you know, I want to help along with NEWFC and many other collaborative groups across the West. The last thing we want to do is throw stones at our own glass house.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and share.

  2. Hi Russ,
    I would submit that Section 301: No Attorney fees for forest management activity challenges, and Section 311: Use of arbitration instead of litigation to address challenges to forest management activities contained the Resilient Federal Forests Act would not hurt the collaborative process. Those who are already sincerely participating in the collaborative process are not as likely to legally challenge forest management decisions as those outside of the collaborative process. These two sections are, in my opinion, badly needed.

    1. Blair,
      Solid points. Thank you for your comments.

      I think you’re right, however I think Arbitration is the key to all of this. If we can switch to Arbitration as the dispute resolution tool for projects that have collaborative support, I think we’re almost there. Two reasons:
      1) It forces groups that actually care to take part in the process of solving land management issues collaboratively.
      2) The Forest Service (or BLM) personnel now have to prepare the appropriate NEPA document for “collaborative support” rather than a legal challenge. This is a far different hurdle, that can be much shorter in duration and much more focused on specific areas of concern.

      It’s my opinion that we will get far better environmental compliance and documentation this way. We will also get collaboration and the FS on the same page.

      My only caveat is this: If the government does us wrong. Any of us. We should be able to challenge and if we win it should not be our burden. I know groups have taken Equal Access to Justice to extremes, but I think this needs to be adjusted for non-collaborative projects. I’m in favor of limitations. The government should never go without the possibility of real challenge.

      Thanks again Blair. Always a pleasure to hear from you.

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