House Bill to Reduce Wildfires Held Up by Committee Chair

Published June 28, 2019

For the third year in a row, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), Congress’ only professional forester, has introduced the Resilient Federal Forests Act, to reduce the economic and environmental damage caused by wildfires and improve forest management.

Several provisions of the 2017 version of the bill were later signed into law as part of the omnibus budget and Farm Bill packages for that year. The legislation’s primary objective of providing federal land management agencies with immediate tools to increase the pace, scale, and efficient design and completion of forest management projects has yet to be realized, says Westerman.

Removing Wildfire Fuel

The Trump administration has argued poor management of federal forests is at least partly responsible for the severity of Western wildfires in recent years.

Westerman’s bill aims to reduce the severity, size, and costs of wildfires by streamlining environmental reviews in order to allow the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to more quickly conduct forest-thinning projects involving removal of dead trees, small trees, underbrush, and other fuel in dry federal forests. The bill would also limit lawsuits by environmental groups opposing forest thinning projects. Such lawsuits have often slowed or quashed forest management plans that included thinning.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act would create a new arbitration pilot program requiring those suing to stop a forest management activity to provide an alternative proposal they claim will meet similar management goals, including mitigating insect and disease infestation, preventing damage to municipal watersheds and critical infrastructure, quickly harvesting wildfire-killed trees to pay for reforestation, and improving forest and grassland health to reduce the threat from wildfires, instead of just saying “no” to agencies’ proposed plans.

‘Loved Our Trees to Death’

By letting nature take its course, as environmental lobbyists have encouraged through lobbying or have used lawsuits to force federal forest managers to do, activists have created unhealthy forests, said Westerman in a joint press release with other cosponsors of the bill.

“We have quite literally loved our trees to death,” said Westerman. “Years of mismanagement have led to insect infestation, overstocked stands, and dead and decaying trees.

“It’s time to allow the Forest Service to use proven scientific methods when managing our forests,” Westerman said.

In the group statement, cosponsor Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) pointed out research shows active management can greatly reduce the harm from forest fires.

“Studies from the Nature Conservancy and Forest Service tell us that active forest management can reduce the size and intensity of wildfires by 70 percent,” said Walden. “We should follow the science on forest policy reform to improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfire, and that’s exactly what this bill does.”

In addition to reducing wildfires, the Resilient Federal Forests Act would benefit wildlife- and timber-dependent communities, said Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) in the statement.

“The bill makes critical reforms to prevent wildfires, improve reforestation efforts, promote collaboration at the local level, and end frivolous lawsuits as we know them,” said Gianforte. “These are commonsense reforms that will make our forests healthier, reduce the severity of our wildfires, improve wildlife habitat, and get our timber workers back to work.”

Committee Chair Says No

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the bill was dead on arrival because it does not focus on fighting climate change.

The bill’s cosponsors universally rejected Grijalva’s claim, saying limiting forest fires reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

“Forests going up in flames and releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere is not true conservation; proactive, sound forest management is,” Westerman said in the press release.

Even supposing Grijalva’s climate concerns are well-founded, that’s no argument against this bill, says Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ).

“My colleagues on the other side of the aisle often exaggerate the impacts of carbon dioxide, but the facts are, the best way to sequester carbon is through healthy forests,” said Gosar in the group’s statement.

Suggests Selling Land

Privatizing at least some federal forests would improve their management more quickly, says H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

The best policy for freedom, for fiscal sanity, and for forest health would be for the U.S. government to sell most of its national forests and other federal lands to the private sector, be it individuals, companies, or nonprofit organizations,” Burnett said. “Private forests are managed for long-term sustainability, benefiting wildlife, owners’ pocketbooks, and the federal government by delivering tax revenue to the federal treasury.

“However, because privatization is not a likely option at present, Westerman’s bill is a step in the right direction because it would limit lawsuits that prevent timely forest management,” Burnett said.

Calls for Funding Reform

Another good reform would be to change the incentives for federal forest managers, which this bill doesn’t do, says Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

“Today’s forest management is driven by fire policy more than it was ever driven by timber policy,” said O’Toole. “Thinnings and similar ‘fuel treatments’ would not be so bad if they earned a profit, but instead, the Forest Service loses money on them, requiring taxpayer subsidies to support them.

The national forests would be better off if their managers were allowed to charge a full range of user fees and they were funded exclusively out of those fees,” O’Toole said. “Then managers would respond to on-the-ground needs, not to national political dynamics.”

Duggan Flanakin¬†([email protected])¬†writes from Austin, Texas.

Official Connections

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR): https://westerman.house.gov/; https://westerman.house.gov/contact/email

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ): https://grijalva.house.gov/; https://grijalva.house.gov/email-raul