Westerman Bill

Natural looking forest management

Over the last 20 years, we have heard of many attempts to create legislation that will improve the management of our National Forests and public lands.  There was the Healthy Forest Restoration Act under the Bush administration.  It says a lot of good things, but it still fails to address the scale of the problem.  There have been other attempts at legislation, but none have made it to law.  In my opinion, the reason for this is simple.  The language has failed to capture the essence of what the public wants.  It either goes too far, and few Democrats support it, or doesn’t go far enough and loses momentum.

Westerman

Currently, there is one bill that is getting attention from all sides.  H.R. 2936 – Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, also referred to as the Westerman bill.  It was introduced by Congressman Bruce Westerman from the 4th Congressional District of Arkansas.  Bruce sits on the House Committee on Natural Resources which is where this bill was worked up. He graduated from the University of Arkansas with an engineering degree before getting a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University.  This makes him the only forester in the House of Representatives.  He also worked for Mid-South Engineering, a company that does work in the forest industry.  He has unique, credible experience.

H.R. 2936 has several parts to it.  Some are great, where others seem to miss the mark.  We need to understand that legislation is not intended to say everything and spell out everything that should be done in the forest, but it lays the foundation for future action.  I like that collaboration remains a key component.  I’m not a big fan of Resource Advisory Councils (RAC).  Basically, they are appointed individuals that are supposed to advise land managers on what should and should not be done.  My concern with this is that it doesn’t go as far as collaborative groups in getting community acceptance.  In the absence of a collaborative group, a RAC could be the best tool available.  RACs could be seen as special interest or too narrow in scope making them subject to justified criticism.

Categorical Exclusions

The other concern is the size of Categorical Exclusions (CE) in this language.  Sure, I’d like to see the size and scope of projects move quickly through the planning stage to implementation, but I see a bigger potential downside.  That downside would be a backlash on projects that don’t have full support from collaborative groups.  If we find ourselves back in the position of groups igniting smear campaigns against the forest industry for management that goes too far, we could all lose, again.

We need collaboratively minded conservation groups to support these efforts.  Our forests and our communities need lasting solutions that we can build upon.  Getting into a situation where this legislation passes because of a Republican administration only to be replaced by something else driven by environmental interests when the pendulum swings to the left will create boom and bust cycles we can’t afford.

Post Fire Restoration

Here are some ideas that might help get this to a place that gives us lasting solutions.  Many of the CE’s are designed to help after a catastrophic event like a wildfire, wind damage, insect and disease outbreak, or other natural disasters.  I fully believe that these are intended to be solutions for land managers in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, but I think we can do better.

We should create the language that encourages forests to develop a “Post Fire Restoration Strategy.”  These would be collaboratively developed plans that would spell out how we would restore areas following a major wildfire event.  For other regions of the country where events like Hurricanes and Tornados are prevalent, strategies could be created for those as well.  It’s important to determine where and how we would restore these forests.  We have done some of this on the Colville National Forest and hope to have a strategy in place soon.

Renner Lake Fire
Burned trees along the road

We should create the language that encourages forests to develop a “Post Fire Restoration Strategy.”  These would be collaboratively developed plans that would spell out how we would restore areas following a major wildfire event.  For other regions of the country where events like Hurricanes and Tornados are prevalent, strategies could be created for those as well.  It’s important to determine where and how we would restore these forests before those efforts are needed.  The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition has done some of this on the Colville National Forest and hopes to have a strategy in place soon.

In the absence of this strategy, we should use existing guidelines for green forests.  If the fires happen where active management would typically take place, the Forest Service and the collaborative group could respond with a plan to harvest the burnt timber in much the same way that it would have looked if it were standing green.  This would give assurances to groups concerned that aggressive fire salvage efforts would lead to large clear cuts and more damage on the ground.

Restoration helps
Forest restoration along roads

We should also include a road-side restoration effort immediately.  If we have open roads through an area that has been burned, we should harvest both sides of the road as soon as possible.  We have seen numerous occasions where burnt trees start falling onto roads after a fire.  This is a safety issue.  We can easily harvest 150 feet on either side of a road, leaving any live trees.  This creates revenue that can be used for soil stabilization, replanting, and other restoration efforts.  It should be authorized and incorporated in the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team’s work.

I suggest we focus on the areas that we plan to manage and restore.  Unless we have strong collaborative support, do not focus on Port Fire Restoration work within Inventoried Roadless Areas or other sensitive areas.  If we push to harvest areas that groups find as sensitive or currently protected, we will get significant push back.  It may be possible to get collaborative support for adjusting boundaries, but until that is accomplished, I think we are asking for trouble.  We can all get more with strong collaboration.

Arbitration

Arbitration is something that could be a game changer.  If a collaborative group comes up with a plan with the Forest Service that has the full support, it should have different legal protection.  If an outside group objects to a project, it should go through as Arbitration process rather than the lengthy legal process.  The time horizon for an arbitrator’s decision should be 60 to 90 days.  This will encourage two things.  First, it will encourage everyone to work out collaborative support for projects. Secondly, it will speed up the NEPA process because the Forest Service will focus on collaborative support rather than preparing for a legal challenge.

The Forest Service needs this kind of direction.  Currently, the agencies are doing their best to collaboratively develop a land management plan. While doing so, they still need to consider all options that could derail the project in court.  If they could focus on meeting the needs of the collaborative while still adhering to the law, they could move much faster. There’s a big difference between doing the right thing and doing the right thing and preparing for a lawsuit.  We need to remove that constraint and things will happen much more fluidly.  If something is missed, someone can bring that up and if no immediate compromise can be made, a qualified arbitrator can make the call.

Thinned and burned
Healthy forests don’t just happen, they require active management.

Congress needs to continue to work on this important issue.  I would like to see them do a bit more outreach so that we can create the kind of buy-in that we need for transformative legislation that most groups can support.  Forest management shouldn’t be a political football, but it has been.  If legislation can be drafted and passed that meets the criteria of most groups we have a chance at creating a new future.

4 thoughts on “Westerman Bill”

  1. In another article you described a three way split for Federal lands. Given what has happened – and is still happening in the west – I think one third for “Wilderness” as we now “manage” it will not work. I have been looking into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the Siskiyou N.F. in SW Oregon.
    There has been a series of fires – 1987, 2002, 2015 and now 2017 that keep burning in the same area. They have generated some huge snag fields which are both dangerous and expensive to fight fire in. The recreation value is highly questionable to negative. We are in a losing situation.
    So I think that “Wilderness” (and roadless as well) needs to be rethought, since it certainly is not accomplishing the “preserving” or “saving” that the groups advocating it as their justification.
    So if it isn’t recreational ground, and it can’t be used for resource production – what is it exactly?

    1. Thanks for your comment TW. Wilderness is protected by law and would have to be retracted by a legislative process. That means that if it’s a wilderness area that was passed by the House, Senate, and signed by a President then it is what it is. Frequent fires are the norm in some areas.

      It’s my belief that if we designate something as wilderness that we should let it be wild. Now, there are exceptions, but the FS rarely uses them. That is where you can use a chainsaw to cut trails and that sort of thing, but the FS is afraid to allow it.

      Roadless is another issue. These areas aren’t necessarily off limits, they just are recognized as not having roads for an area of at least 5,000 contiguous acres. They can be controversial when it comes to management, but it’s not legally protected from using motorized transportation, chainsaws, or even heavy equipment.

      Some of those areas will probably become wilderness. Some will be backcountry without motorized recreation, and some will allow motorized recreation. Yet some others may get classified into a restoration management designation. That remains to be seen by congress and the Forest Service. I certainly hope that collaboration plays a roll in those decisions, but currently there is no mandate to do so.

      Some people see Wilderness as a waste. I understand that concern, but I look at it differently. I see it as a truly wild place where the processes take place as it would if it were not impacted by man. I think we have more than enough other areas to manage and derive products.

      To me, wilderness is something where man is the visitor. I’m not a wilderness advocate, but I respect it and I’m glad it’s there.

      My issue is the other 60-70% of the forest. Why aren’t we doing all we can there? Even if you don’t like and don’t believe we should have wilderness, shouldn’t we go manage the areas with the most need that are near roads and easier to manage?

      I don’t fault you for your way of looking at it. I just think you have to pick your battles, and that’s not a winnable war.

      Russ

      1. I’m not saying it is an easy thing to change, but if you look at the list of big fires –
        10,000 acres and up this year – you have to wonder if wilderness is affordable when it becomes such a big element of the fire budget – and there is no upside of protecting an
        asset. Worse yet you are prevented from salvaging what value there might be before the bugs get it – and then you have no cash flow to fight the next fire – which you have
        contributed to by leaving a lot of lightning rods and heavy fuel on the ground.
        Ask the people in Brookings if they think wilderness is a good neighbor.

        1. I get it. I don’t think we should be fighting fires in wilderness as a regular course of business. Spending money on fighting fires in wilderness is a bad policy. We should focus fuel reduction treatments around those wilderness areas so once the do come from those protected landscapes we have a chance at knocking the fire down the the ground level where it can be fought.

          In specific areas, if collaboration results in a change in land designation I would support that 100%. My guess is that it would be a heavy lift.

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