The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee recently held a hearing on natural resource production and revenue generation to state and local governments. Much of the hearing’s focus was revenue and economic activity from non-renewable offshore oil and gas production. Americans in our rural, forested communities are asking why the committee has not taken action on legislation to create jobs and generate revenue through responsible and sustainable timber management.
For many forested communities, the dramatic decline of federal timber harvests over the past 20 years has contributed to high unemployment, poverty and the decimation of local government services. For over 15 years Congress has sought to offset the loss of timber receipts under the Secure Rural Schools program, but it is clear that these dwindling payments have not provided these communities the jobs and economic activity they need most. These forested communities only want a hand-up, not another hand-out.
Meanwhile, Congress is now debating legislation to address record wildfire suppression costs, another symptom of our failed forest management policies. Fortunately, proposals have emerged to address wildfire suppression costs, assure balance in federal forest management to create jobs, provide revenue to local governments, and help contain catastrophic wildfire and other threats in the future.
Last summer, on a bipartisan vote the U.S. House approved HR 1526 — the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act — to renew the federal government’s commitment to managing federal forests for the benefit of rural communities. The bill promotes responsible timber production on Forest Service commercial timber lands, requires the agency to produce at least half of the sustainable yield of timber annually, and share 25 percent of receipts with counties to support education and infrastructure.
In addition, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has introduced the National Forest Jobs and Management Act — S. 1966 — to require the U.S. Forest Service to implement commercial timber harvest projects on a modest 7.5 million acres already deemed suitable for timber management over 15 years. Though both bills would create thousands of American jobs, while generating hundreds of millions for local governments, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has taken no action on either solution.
Rather than directing offshore oil and gas revenue to provide subsidies to forested communities, as the Senate Committee seems inclined to do, the Senate should advance legislation reforming federal land policies to put more Americans back to work, improve forest health, and end the viscous cycle of ever increasing wildfire suppression costs. Sen. Barrasso recently joined Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both R-Ariz., in introducing legislation — S. 2593, the FLAME Act Amendments of 2014 — that would allow for the full funding of wildland firefighting budgets for federal agencies, end the practice of “fire borrowing,” as well as dramatically increase resources for forest restoration programs. The legislation also includes elements of Sen. Barrasso’s National Forest Jobs and Management Act to restore proactive forest management.
Consideration of S. 2593, as well as the House-passed HR 1526, would enable the Senate to finally address the cumbersome federal regulations and endless lawsuits that are draining Forest Service budgets and limiting opportunities for active forest management. A number of states successfully manage millions of acres of state trust lands to generate significant revenue, provide recreational opportunities, and sustain habitat for wildlife. Generating revenue from non-renewable resources, to compensate for the absence of active management, will not fix the problems in our rural communities or our federal forests.
Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a nonprofit organization based in Oregon that promotes active management of federal forest lands throughout the Pacific Northwest. For more information, visit http://www.healthyforests.org/.