Though it faces widespread opposition from environmentalists, proponents of legislation to improve forest management and reduce the threat of wildfire hope the package of bills receives swift attention in the U.S. Senate.
The bills passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a largely party-line 244-173 vote on Sept. 20. The proposals by the chamber’s Committee on Natural Resources aim to re-establish a priority for actively managing federal lands through timber production and other measures and enable a short-term extension of Secure Rural Schools payments.
Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and other committee members hope the legislation can be incorporated with various Senate proposals for addressing forestry-related issues, said Mallory Micetich, the panel’s deputy press secretary.
“We’re definitely hoping that moving forward, we’ll be able to reach a compromise,” Micetich said. “Obviously now it’s in the hands of the Senate to put out legislation. We haven’t had any draft legislation, so we will see.”
Opponents have called the House bills a giveaway to the timber industry and said they would harm water quality and habitat for fish and wildlife and jeopardize recreational areas that have become a major source of jobs in national forests. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation.
“I think it’s fair to say that the broader Hastings bill is one of the biggest threats to our management of public lands and environmental laws that have cropped up in the past 20 or 30 years,” Oregon Wild executive director Sean Stevens told the Capital Press. “It essentially undoes protections on national forest lands.”
Proponents note that Hastings’ House Resolution 1526 comes as more than 50 major wildfires burned throughout the West this summer, many on U.S. Forest Service land. The fires’ intensity prompted U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Idaho Republican Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo to promise an effort this fall to pass a forest management plan that includes more thinning of overgrown forest stands and proper grazing.
“We’re hoping and thinking that this is going to be the Congress to do it,” Micetich said.
Wyden, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, “agrees it’s time to get the (timber) harvest up, to create more jobs in the woods and make forests healthier,” said his spokesman, Keith Chu.
“It’s clear that bills that undermine bedrock environmental laws or turn large swaths of federal land to private ownership cannot pass the Senate or be signed into law by the president,” Chu said.
The House package lumps together several forestry-related bills proposed by Western lawmakers earlier this year, including a bipartisan bill by Oregon representatives that addresses the Bureau of Land Management lands in Western Oregon known as “O&C Lands.”
Under that bill, half of the federally controlled lands in western Oregon would be turned over to a state-appointed trust that would manage them for timber production. The other half would be managed for fish and wildlife habitat, including creating new wilderness areas.
Oregon Wild led a coalition of environmental groups last month in sending a letter to Oregon’s congressional delegation, opposing what it called a return to clearcut logging and weakening of environmental safeguards on the “O&C Lands.”
The package also incorporates a proposal by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that seeks a long-term alternative to Secure Rural Schools funding by enabling some counties to manage federal land within their borders and generate the revenue needed to improve schools and roads.
An amendment by California Republican Reps. Doug LaMalfa, Tom McClintock, Jeff Denham and Kevin McCarthy would limit lawsuits to block salvage operations in areas damaged by the 250,000-acre Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park.
LaMalfa, a Richvale, Calif., rice farmer, also authored an amendment enabling salvage operations to be included in fire suppression plans, exempting them from certain restrictions to speed their work.
The legislation’s advancement was praised by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council, which assert its passage signals legislators’ recognition that drought and current forest and range management practices are creating dangerous conditions across the West.
The proposals could save the livelihoods of thousands of ranchers on and near public lands, argued Brice Lee, a Colorado rancher and president of the PLC.
“Millions of acres across the West burn each year, leaving many communities devastated and a whole lot of livestock with nowhere to go,” Lee said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
House Committee on Natural Resources: http://naturalresources.house.gov
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association: http://www.beefusa.org
Public Lands Council: http://publiclandscouncil.org/default.aspx