Ag Committee Sends Forest Bill to Full Senate

Published September 1, 2003

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee on July 24 approved and sent to the full Senate a forest management bill supported by the Bush administration.

The bill, nearly identical to the Healthy Forests Restoration Act approved by the full House in May, received the unanimous support of the Committee on a voice vote. A vote by the full Senate is expected as early as September.

The proposed legislation aims to streamline the process by which U.S. Forest Service officials manage national forests to prevent catastrophic wildfires. Among the most significant provisions, the legislation would

  • limit to 15 days the time period in which opponents of Forest Service projects could challenge new programs;
  • direct courts to give significant weight to Forest Service biological opinions;
  • discourage “venue shopping” by requiring plaintiffs to file suit in the district court where a project is being proposed;
  • allow the Forest Service to restrict its deliberations to a proposed management plan versus no action at all;
  • and set a 100-day time limit for judges to rule on challenges to forest management projects.

Two competing bills, sponsored by Senate Democrats, failed to gain committee approval. The competing bills would have provided marginal streamlining of forest management procedures, and directed that forest management programs be largely restricted to areas directly adjacent to human population centers.

“Passage of the bipartisan healthy forests bill in the Agriculture Committee today set the stage for this important legislation to get through the full Senate this year,” said Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

Procedural Changes

Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture, said the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service must currently study up to nine alternatives for each proposed forest management plan. The cost of studying such alternatives, often reaching $2 million or more per proposed plan, is crippling the Forest Service’s ability to perform its job. Rey estimated that eliminating the requirement to consider so many alternatives will cut costs by two-thirds.

Liberal environmentalists are particularly unhappy with Healthy Forests language directing courts to give substantial deference to Forest Service biological opinions. Such language, according to Patrick Parenteau, director of the Vermont Law School Environmental Law Clinic, is an unprecedented “attempt to put a thumb on the scale [of justice] in favor of one side” in a legal dispute.

Directives for courts to give special weight to agency findings are not in fact unusual. For example, courts are directed to give U.S. Department of Labor regulations special deference in resolving employment law disputes.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) expressed concern that limiting the time period for litigants to file lawsuits and for judges to rule on challenges to forest management plans would disrupt current judicial processes. “What do we want to protect more,” responded Rey, “the current judicial practice or the forests?”

Western States Line Up in Support

Senators from the western states most affected by the proposed legislation formed the core of support for the Healthy Forests bill. Opposition was heaviest among Senators from coastal states.

“The forest health crisis on our public lands cannot be ignored,” said Republican Governor Judy Martz and Senators Conrad Burns and Denny Rehberg of Montana, in a joint written statement. “Currently, 190 million acres of federal forest and rangeland are at unnaturally high risk to catastrophic wildfire–larger than all of New England combined. Of the approximately 18 million acres of national forest land in Montana, over 12 million acres are classified as ‘Condition Class 2 or 3,’ which means these lands are in critical need of treatment.

“To those of us in Montana, it’s clear that the federal process for addressing these problems is horribly broken,” the Montanans continued. “When roughly 90 percent of decisions in the Northern Region are appealed, the system is ripe for reform. These constant appeals and litigation, and the threat of these actions, have led our forest professionals into a predicament that can only be addressed through legislation. The time is now for real solutions … We support the President’s healthy forest legislation because it will alleviate some of the challenges facing our forest managers.”

Costs vs. Benefits

Hal Salwasser, dean of the Oregon State University College of Forestry, took special exception to criticisms that forest management is necessary only near human population centers. Unnaturally thick forest growth and resultant catastrophic fires pose a special threat to watershed ecosystems, said Salwasser.

“We need a broader perspective than 200 feet around a home,” agreed Rep. Richard Pombo, chair of the House Resources Committee.

However, some observers question whether the benefits of active forest management plans are worth the cost. “I don’t think this policy has great merit,” said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. “It’s not capable of accomplishing its goals. There’ll never be enough resources to thin Western forests. That would require $100 billion.”

Lumber Production Defended

Kim Liles, a paper maker at Smurfit-Stone Container’s mill in Frenchtown, Montana and special projects director for the Rocky Mountain Region of the Pulp and Paperworkers’ Resource Council, took exception to the insistence by some anti-logging groups that forest management plans not provide benefits to lumber producers. “Since when did it become un-American and wrong to make a profit on lumber?” he asked. “If we are to believe the environmental extreme community, no one should make a dime on public lands on anything. Only they, it would appear, should be allowed to make money through litigation and legal action, while at the same time good, hard-working people are put out of work as a result of their actions.”

Added Liles, “I as well as many of my co-workers hold them responsible and accountable for many of the jobs we have lost in the timber industry here in Montana and the western United States. They always talk about compromise, but as I have experienced and seen through the years, the only ones who must compromise are those of us who rely on our natural resources for our living and survival.”

The Healthy Forests legislation appears to have the support of a majority of the Senate, but it is unclear whether the legislation can muster the 60 votes necessary to withstand a threatened filibuster.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The 88-page text of the Healthy Forests legislation reported out by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and request document #12623