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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.