National forests deserve better than House farm bill

National forests deserve better than House farm bill
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In June, the House and Senate passed farm bills with very different approaches to solving environmental problems in the national forests. As members of Congress negotiate the 2018 farm bill this summer, they should avoid the House’s proposals, which would seriously damage our national forests and reduce Americans’ say in how these forests are managed. 

Everyone agrees that our national forests provide important wildlife habitat, supply clean drinking water to hundreds of cities and towns, and offer outdoor recreation opportunities to Americans nationwide. Where opinions differ is in the care and protection of forests, and those differences have major consequences for our national forests and the people who live, work, and recreate on them. 

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To its credit, Congress this spring finally enacted long-overdue reform of the nation’s broken system of funding wildfire suppression in our national forests. However, the House’s proposals in the farm bill would curtail tried and true democratic processes that help ensure national forest management projects are scientifically based and socially acceptable.

 

Wildfire, especially when it affects our homes and families, appropriately heightens emotions. Protection of life and property should always be the top priority during any wildfire. Fuel reduction activity to reduce wildfire impacts needs to prioritize areas near communities in what is known as the Wildland Urban Interface, rather than remote backcountry areas of our national forests.

Wildfire funding should concentrate on prevention programs such as controlled burning and fuel reduction. But the House bill does not properly address these issues. Instead, it focuses on accelerated commercial logging and road building — which generally exacerbates fire risk — with little consideration of impacts on water quality, wildlife, or recreational values.

Contained in the House farm bill are a number of new “categorical exclusions” from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for particular projects or management situations. NEPA, signed into law by President Nixon, has helped ensure for almost a half century that all stakeholders have a voice in management decisions. However, the House bill limits public input on logging projects up to 6,000 acres when removing fire-damaged trees, spraying herbicides, or creating openings for wildlife.  

Improving forest conditions and wildlife habitat should include input from scientists and interested stakeholders, including state and tribal wildlife agencies. This will help ensure that commercial logging activities, including thinning, conform to forest plans and are conducted at ecologically appropriate scales. 

Salvage logging of burned areas after a fire occurs primarily for economic reasons and rarely contributes to ecological recovery in the disturbed area. Salvage logging of dead or dying trees is appropriate near roads where standing dead trees pose a safety hazard but should generally be avoided in areas where maintaining natural ecosystem processes is a priority.

The House legislation also exempts the Forest Service from analyzing cumulative environmental effects of multiple categorical exclusion projects in the same vicinity. This violates a fundamental principle of scientifically sound public land management — that of ensuring that management activities collectively do not produce environmentally destructive outcomes. 

These exemptions from conservation law would dramatically reduce public participation in decision making on the national forests. These forests are public lands, managed for a variety of services benefiting many different stakeholders. Management alternatives should be provided to the public for their consideration to help ensure that multiple interests are balanced.

Adoption of procedures usurping public participation, as proposed by the House, would result in major public pushback against active management. This has happened before, such as with the infamous Salvage Rider of 1995. Congress must avoid measures that would reduce public support for badly needed active management on our national forests.

Norman Christensen, Ph.D., is an emeritus 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.