Congress should pass Resilient Federal Forests Act to address wildfire threat

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The 2017 wildfire season is reigniting a national discussion on the causes of catastrophic wildfires and the solutions that are needed to protect forests, property and human lives in the future. Fortunately there’s a balanced solution now moving through Congress that will help restore overgrown and fire-prone forests, while creating new jobs across the nation.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the only forester in Congress, has introduced the bipartisan Resilient Federal Forests Act (HR 2936) to give the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management the tools and resources they need to better manage our public lands. The legislation has already been approved by the House Natural Resources Committee and could soon receive a vote on the floor of the U.S. House. 

Congress should pass this legislation without delay, because the Forest Service estimates that at least 58 million acres of national forest are at high, or very high, risk of catastrophic wildfire. Due to bureaucracy, litigation and the unsustainable costs of fighting today’s mega-fires, the agency treats only a small fraction of this amount on a yearly basis. The Forest Service has also identified over 1.1 million acres in need of reforestation as a result of these fires. Without action we will continue to lose more forest lands that support rural economies, recreation and wildlife habitat.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act works by addressing the bureaucracy and litigation issues that drive federal forest management today. For example, Forest Service employees typically spend 40 percent of their time doing paperwork instead of managing our forests. Thanks to analysis paralysis and the fear of litigation, it can take up to four years for the agency to develop and implement projects that restore forests back to health. Meanwhile our forests and forested communities suffer.

To untie the hands of federal land managers, and to allow them to do more work on the forests, the Resilient Federal Forests Act provides limited categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act. As long as they are consistent with existing forest plans, the Forest Service can use these tools to expedite projects on forests that are identified as being at immediate risk of severe wildfire, insects and disease, as well as to protect watersheds, remove hazard trees that threaten public safety, and enhance wildlife habitat and to quickly rehabilitate a forest after a fire. 

Important forest management decisions should be in the hands of land managers and foresters, not judges and lawyers. The Resilient Federal Forests Act offers innovative alternatives to costly litigation, such as through a pilot project for utilizing arbitration for resolving legal challenges, time limits for preliminary injunctions, and requiring courts to weigh the risks of not taking action.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act also allows federal land managers to quickly remove dead trees after wildfires, creating new revenue to replant and rehabilitate burned forests. It incentivizes the development of forest health projects by local forest collaboratives, usually consisting of conservationists, timber industry and elected officials.   

To address growing firefighting costs, the legislation allows the president to declare major wildfires a natural disaster under the Stafford Act, making emergency funding available for suppression and prevents “borrowing” funds from non-suppression accounts. 

The Resilient Federal Forests Act will also help reverse the loss of forest product infrastructure, such as sawmills and loggers, that is critical to the efficiency and effectiveness of forest restoration efforts on federal lands.  More forest projects would not only create more jobs and support local economies, it will help generate new revenue to pay for more forest health projects in the future. 

Let’s encourage Congress to pass this important legislation that will help our federal land agencies increase the pace and scale of forest management projects that mitigate the impacts of drought, climate change and other challenges to our public lands.

Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit coalition advocating active, multiple-use management of America’s federally owned forests. 

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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