Energy & Environment

Congress, don’t let logging industry decide fate of American forests


Maintaining the health of America’s forests, and all the benefits we draw from them, requires understanding and respecting the natural ecology.  But it also requires understanding and respecting the political ecology.  Logging interests, local communities, recreational users, environmentalists, and others all have played important roles in shaping U.S. forestry policy.  They may not like one another, and they may bitterly resent particular decisions on which other interests prevailed, but they have all grudgingly accepted one another’s participation in the process.

Until now.  Extreme legislation introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) would give logging interests virtual absolute primacy in setting forestry policy, to the exclusion of others that depend on our forests.  The reckless logging likely to follow would do serious damage to the forests’ natural ecology.  And, in the longer term, this rejection of the political ecology of forest policy-making is likely to trigger similarly radical proposals from other interests once the political winds have shifted.  

Turning our forests into political battlefields is likely to produce a boom-and-bust cycle that is uneconomical for industry, chaotic for local communities, and ruinous for hikers, trout enthusiasts, hunters, and wildlife.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act (H.R. 2936) would eliminate much of the open process that currently guides forestry project approvals.  Loggers and environmentalists alike complain bitterly about the outcomes of particular forest management debates, but the process of systematically gathering the facts and discussing them openly with all concerned is essential to making balanced decisions.  Instead, the bill would exempt logging projects covering areas twice the size of Manhattan from serious environmental review.  

It would make compliance with the Endangered Species Act a sham by removing obligations to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s experts. It would similarly disregard recreational interests by allowing logging in riparian buffer zones that can pollute, and change the temperature of, prime fishing streams.  

H.R. 2936 also broadly undermines access to court to enforce environmental laws.  Where the substance of a law is misguided, it should be changed.  But keeping laws on the books while systematically undermining their enforcement only confuses the public and breeds cynicism.

The basic rationale for this legislation — that current law hopelessly ties the hands of federal agencies — is outdated at best.  Concerns about bottlenecks in the approval process led to important recent reforms to expedite meritorious projects.  The Forest Service devolved approval authority down to individual national forest managers.  The 2014 Farm Bill authorized expedited project approval in areas threatened by fire, disease, or insect infestation.  The Forest Service has designated about one-quarter of all national forest land as eligible for this authority, which meets emergencies without jettisoning environmental concerns.

These measures and others led to a nearly 22 percent increase in timber sales from 2009 to 2016.  Adverse market conditions and proposed sales that received no bids kept the increase from being even greater.  Environmental risks led to some individual projects being modified or rejected, but in some of cases the timber companies turned to other lands to harvest similar quantities.

Particularly unfortunate is H.R. 2936’s treatment of fire.  Forest fires play a role in nature, but extreme fires also threaten forest health.  Sometimes logging can help thin out overgrown forests that are excessively vulnerable.  But reckless logging can exacerbate fire’s harm.  Clear-cutting can result in a forest with all trees of the same age and hence the same susceptibility to fire.  And logging after a fire can cause soil erosion while crushing the surviving plants and animals that are crucial to the forest’s regeneration.  We must not overlook the benefits of targeted logging, but pretending it is the solution to all problems ignores scientific evidence and invites an equally heedless response.

Forests can pull massive amounts of carbon out of the air that otherwise would contribute to climate change.  Reckless logging is thus a major global environmental problem.  Although a small fraction of timber goes into long-lasting wood products, the great majority either is sold as fuel pellets or is rotting in a landfill within a few years, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.  

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris treaty on climate change and his dismantlement of programs designed to reduce our carbon footprint will inevitably bring a strong policy reaction.  When that comes, we will surely hear calls for radical restrictions on logging.  Such logging bans will be harmful for industry and possibly even wildlife.  Yet enactment of extreme, unbalanced legislation like H.R. 2936, marginalizing legitimate environmental concerns, make a similarly extreme swing in the other direction far more likely.  

As frustrating as it may be for the logging industry to work with, and sometimes lose to, local community, recreational, and environmental concerns, its long-term interests require preserving both the natural and the political ecologies.  Congress would not be doing anyone any favors by passing heedless legislation like H.R. 2936.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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

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