Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., recently introduced the National Forest Jobs and Management Act, which creates a 15-year pilot project on 3.8 percent of the 191 million acre national forest system. On this pilot area, forest management projects would be conducted using streamlined compliance processes, and disputes, instead of going to court, would go to binding arbitration.
On the remaining 183.5 million acres of national forests, nothing would change. This includes the 36 million acres of designated wilderness, and most of the 58.5 million acres designated as “roadless.” The Forest Service can continue to work in collaborative groups, use its stewardship contracts, and focus fuels reduction in the wildland urban interface.
Some point to the bill’s opponent’s focus on timber harvest and falsely claim that the bill makes timber a “dominant use” on the national forests, or that it is an unfunded mandate that somehow disrupts forest planning. The fact is that Congress has permanently set aside 36 million acres of national forests as wilderness. The Clinton administration set aside 58.5 million acres of national forests as “roadless,” where most activities are off limits. So fully half the national forest system is already off limits to most management.
Approximately 24 percent of the national forests are designated in current forest plans as “suited for timber production.” Yet on these acres, even modest projects are still subject to extraordinary levels of analysis. These projects, frequently recommended by collaborative groups or community wildfire protection plans, run the gauntlet of administrative objections and then frequently end up tied up by the courts, sometimes for years. The Barrasso bill would apply on just a fraction of these acres where timber production is called for in the forest plans.
The larger point here is that Congress has begun to recognize that court driven management of our national forests is not working. either for the timber industry, the general public which relies on the forests for water, wildlife and recreation, or for the taxpayer. Scaled-back management for the last 20-plus years has let too much fuel accumulate in our forests and reduced economic activity, while creating a fire hazard for those who live nearby.
Since 2003, Congress has acted to encourage the Forest Service to manage the national forests. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act prioritized hazardous fuels reduction work in the Wildland Urban Interface, while providing some limited new authority for management in other areas on the forest. That bill passed both houses with strong bipartisan majorities, with just 11 votes against in the Senate. In 2009, Congress authorized the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act to encourage people to come together to design forest management projects. In 2011, Congress moved to streamline the objection process for most forest management projects. The 2014 Farm Bill provided expedited management for critical watersheds, expanded pilot “Good Neighbor Authority” to all 50 states, and has authorized the use of modem tree-marking techniques to expedite timber sales.
All of these laws, adopted on a bipartisan basis, have given the Forest Service the permission to manage more of our federal forests. Unfortunately, the Forest Service either doesn’t take advantage of these tools, or even when they do, the relatively modest forest management projects they propose are still blocked by activist groups who won’t participate in collaboration. Instead, they seek to block projects solely on procedural grounds. Needed projects are delayed, enjoined or cancelled, and the fabric of poor rural communities frays even further.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Montana, where timber outputs have declined precipitously. In the last three years alone, 91 percent of the commercial sawlog volume scheduled to be sold has been postponed because of appeals or litigation.
Congress must stop giving the Forest Service permission to manage and start giving them direction to manage. Where a forest plan says timber management is appropriate, timber management ought to be possible. The Barrasso bill is an opportunity to stop wasting resources on endless analysis. The Forest Service can use non-commercial management on wildland urban interface and implement collaborative projects wherever they want. But on a small portion of the system, Congress needs to tell them to manage to support wood-using industries. And the courts need to know what the mission is, so they can stop making it up on their own.
Ed Regan is resource manager for RY Timber, Inc. in Townsend.