In a bipartisan move, U.S. senators Steve Daines and Dianne Feinstein have pushed for logging and litigation reforms in a coming energy and natural resources bill.
“As conference negotiations on comprehensive energy legislation continue, we write to share our common priorities and urge you to include strong reforms that are needed to improve the health of forests in our states and address the chronic challenges that are impeding current forest restoration efforts,” wrote Daines (R-Mont.) and Feinstein, (D-Calif.).
The letter went to the Republican chairs and Democratic ranking members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
Daines and Feinstein asked the conference members to end the practice of “fire borrowing,” whereby the U.S. Forest Service has spent more than half its annual budget on emergency wildfire costs by raiding routine program allocations. They also proposed several more changes, including two ways to limit legal challenges to Forest Service projects.
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One would require courts “to give substantial deference to the expertise of the Secretary (of Agriculture) when determining whether federal agencies’ actions were arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedures Act.”
“Having a Republican from Montana join forces with a Democrat from California breaks a logjam that’s held things up for far too long,” Daines said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “Particularly having Sen. Feinstein working with me on litigation reform provisions, which have always been a sticking point, is an important step forward. I’m cautiously optimistic with her support we can move forward in a bipartisan fashion.”
The second change would pick up a 2015 suggestion made by Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to try “a pilot arbitration program” to settle public objections of agency projects.
“There are nearly 30 active lawsuits in (Forest Service) Region 1 and Region 5 that slow the Forest Service’s consensus-driven, science-based forest management efforts,” the senators wrote. Region 1, headquartered in Missoula, has 21 of those lawsuits.
One of the primary opponents of the Forest Service wasn’t impressed. Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Michael Garrity compared the pilot arbitration idea to corporations like Wells Fargo, which require customers to challenge their actions through arbitration rather than lawsuits.
"This is just a way to exclude the public from having a say in management of public lands," Garrity said.
“Since the Forest Service has been found repeatedly by the courts to be serial lawbreakers, Daines’ solution is to no longer let the courts have authority over the Forest Service,” he said. “I guess he thinks what’s good for Wells Fargo is good for our public lands. I think a better idea is Daines should focus on making the Forest Service follow the law rather than help the Forest Service to continue to break it.”
The senators’ letter also proposes letting the Forest Service use an “action or no action analysis” on projects developed with collaborative groups, which would reduce the number of options considered in an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
They asked for provisions to turn dead trees in high-hazard areas into either energy feedstock or wood products with 20-year forest stewardship contracts and mobile processing technologies. And they would make permanent a change from the 2014 Farm Bill that allows the Forest Service to use categorical exclusions of environmental review for projects under 3,000 acres.