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National forests deserve better than House and Senate’s wildfire bills

National forests deserve better than House and Senate’s wildfire bills
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This week the House is considering the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, a misguided bill that would seriously damage our national forests and reduce Americans’ ability to have a say in how these forests are managed. 

In the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, related legislation is also under consideration. The House and Senate bills purport to solve the growing problem of wildfires, yet both bills are troubling in their approach to forest and wildfire management. 

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We can all agree that our national forests are important for wildlife habitat, for the clean drinking water they provide to hundreds of cities and towns, and for the outdoor recreation opportunities they offer Americans nationwide. There is also broad, bipartisan consensus that the federal government’s funding system for fighting wildfire is broken.

 

Where we differ is in our approach to the forests’ care and protection, and that difference has considerable consequences for our national forests and the people who live, work, and recreate on them. 

It is correct to assert that dedicated wildfire funding is necessary and requires Congressional action. However, recent recommendations to curtail tried and true democratic processes for environmental and judicial review when it comes to national forest management are as unwise as the House and Senate legislation currently being discussed.

Wildfire, especially when it affects our homes and families, heightens emotions and rightly so. Protection of life and property should always be the top priority during any wildfire. Fuel reduction activity to reduce wildfire impacts must be focused near communities in what is known as the Wildland Urban Interface, not in remote backcountry areas of our national forests.

Wildfire funding should concentrate on prevention programs such as controlled burning and fuel reduction. But both bills fail to properly address these issues. Instead, they focus on accelerated commercial logging and road building, with little consideration to impacts on water quality, wildlife or recreational values. Neither piece of legislation would make our forests more resilient.

Contained in both the House and Senate bills are a number of new “Categorical exclusions” from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for particular projects or management situations. NEPA, enacted into law during the Nixon administration, has endured for almost a half century to ensure that all relevant stakeholders have a voice in management decisions that affect their legitimate interests. Categorical exclusions were created to allow the Forest Service to exempt environmentally insignificant management activities from the normal NEPA process, most notably from the necessity of a formalized program for public input and environmental review. 

But nothing is environmentally insignificant in the categorical exclusions within these bills. They allow exclusions for large logging projects up to 6,000 acres in the Senate bill or 10,000 acres in the recently passed House bill, to remove fire-damaged trees, create certain types of wildlife habitat or simply produce timber. Such scale is excessive for categorical exclusions, particularly on the primarily smaller eastern National Forest landscapes.

Improvement of forest conditions and wildlife habitat should be planned with input from qualified biologists and interested stakeholders, including state and tribal wildlife agencies. Commercial thinning or other logging should be done in the context of forest plans and executed at ecologically appropriate scales. 

Salvage logging of burned areas after fire is conducted primarily for economic reasons and rarely contributes to ecological recovery in the disturbed area. Salvage logging of dead or dying trees should focus near roads where standing dead trees pose a safety hazard and be avoided altogether in areas needed to preserve natural ecosystem processes.

The legislation would also exempt the Forest Service from analyzing cumulative environmental effects of multiple categorical exclusions projects in the same vicinity, violating fundamental ecological principles of sound public forest management on issues of scale, context and need. 

These exemptions from environmental law are an aggressive legislative assault on our national forests and public participation. Our national forests are public lands, managed for a variety of services benefiting many different stakeholders. A range of alternatives should be presented on which the public can weigh in, thereby balancing conflicting interests wherever possible.

Management of our national forests must not fall victim to political posturing. Better legislative options that provide the necessary resources for those on the ground, maintain the ecological health of the forests, and keep the voice of the American people involved are needed. On this we all should agree. 

Norm Christensen, Ph.D., is a research professor of ecology and the founding dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Jerry Franklin, Ph.D., is a professor of forest ecosystems at the University of Washington in Seattle.