Enviros, ranchers disagree on merits of GOP bills to accelerate logging, grazing
Written byPHIL TAYLOR, E&E Daily
Republican bills claiming to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires are really "Trojan horses" that could incentivize harmful logging and grazing on federal lands, a coalition of environmental groups said yesterday.
One rancher, however, will tell lawmakers today that public lands are dangerously overstocked with fuels and brush and that federal agencies, saddled by excessive planning, appeals and litigation, need broader authority from Congress to fix the problem.
Both perspectives will be heard this morning when the House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on three bills seeking to streamline the removal of dead, dying or excess trees and grasses that have accumulated as a result of decades of fire suppression.
The measures include Rep. Scott Tipton's (R-Colo.) H.R. 6089, Rep. Ed Markey's (D-Mass.) H.R. 5960 and Rep. Paul Gosar's (R-Ariz.) H.R. 5744.
While committee Republicans have argued that environmental laws have hindered logging projects, conservationists yesterday said the Tipton and Gosar bills would limit public input and give states unprecedented control of federal lands.
"These bills open up bigger areas of our national forests and public lands that can be logged and developed for virtually any purpose, in some cases regardless of whether such projects address fire, insects, or other threats," said a letter to lawmakers from Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, the Geos Institute, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. "Projects could range from extensive backcountry logging to oil and gas leasing to highway building, and all could occur well outside the wildland-urban interface, where public safety concerns are highest."
The groups said the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 -- which each of the bills seeks to broaden -- already gives agencies authority to conduct logging projects that reduce hazardous fuels and treat insect infestations, though it reduces National Environmental Policy Act reviews, public participation and opportunities to appeal.
The Forest Service already uses categorical exclusions to accelerate projects including commercial thinning, prescribed burning, hazardous fuels reduction, insect and disease control, post-fire rehabilitation and salvage logging, they said.
But David Cook, who represents the Arizona Cattle Growers Association and is scheduled to testify, said the planning process used by the federal agencies is "woefully broken" and that a reduction in timber harvests and grazing on public lands, in part, has allowed forests to become overstocked.
"There are many reasons why the federal government finds itself in a situation where over two-thirds of the land it manages is at risk of catastrophic wildfire due to fuel loads in excess of historical norms," Cook said in prepared remarks for the committee. "The various reasons for the burgeoning fuel loads have one common theme: overregulation and, as a result, environmental litigation that creates a self-perpetuating cycle."
Cook will testify in support of Gosar's bill, which would allow federal land managers to use emergency provisions of existing regulations to speed grazing and forest-thinning projects on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, according to his office.
The bill would set deadlines for agencies to finalize proposed projects after taking public comments. Environmental assessments would be valid for at least a decade for grazing projects and for at least 20 years for timber thinning projects under the bill (E&E Daily, May 16).
Dan Gibbs, a commissioner in Colorado's Summit County who is also a wildland firefighter, said he will testify today in support of extending the Forest Service's stewardship contracting authority, which allows the agency to use the revenues from logging to fund other forest restoration projects, including noncommercial thinnings.
Gibbs said it is also important to expand the use of "good neighbor" authority that allows state foresters to expand treatments onto neighboring federal lands.
Markey's bill would do both those things.
"There could be areas where it I think it makes sense to have a more streamlined process," Gibbs said, noting areas along power lines. But he said consistent funding is a bigger challenge than the length of environmental reviews.
But Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress who is also scheduled to testify, said climate change makes the threat of droughts, wildfires or beetle epidemics unavoidable for the foreseeable future.
"Focusing your wildfire mitigation efforts solely on treatments and ignoring global warming" is the equivalent of "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," he said. "It's thinning the deck chairs on the Titanic."