Hastings bill aims to improve forest management, prevent wildfires
By TIM HEARDEN
A package of legislation is moving through the U.S. House of Representatives that seeks to improve forest management and reduce the threat of wildfire on federal lands.
The chamber's Committee on Natural Resources on July 31 passed the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which aims to re-establish a priority for actively managing federal lands through timber production and other measures and enables a short-term extension of Secure Rural Schools payments.
The legislation by committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., 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."
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 their own land and generate the revenue needed to improve schools and roads.
The legislation's advancement was praised by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Public Lands Council, which assert its overwhelming passage signals legislators' recognition that drought and current forest and range management practices are creating dangerous conditions across the West.
"Across our country, rural forest communities are struggling for survival," Hastings told his colleagues. "These communities have depended on the forest for their livelihoods. Yet in the last three decades, federal forest lands have essentially been shut down due to bureaucratic red tape and lawsuits and these rural communities are paying the price.
"The federal government made a commitment over 100 years ago to actively manage our national forests and promote a percentage of revenue from that management to counties containing national forest land," he said. "Yet the federal government has failed to uphold that promise."
Among the committee's 47 members are many from the West. In addition to Hastings and Labrador, they include Republican Reps. Tom McClintock and Doug LaMalfa of California and Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Grace Napolitano, Jim Costa, Tony Cardenas, Jared Huffman, Paul Ruiz and Alan Lowenthal of California.
Earlier this year, DeFazio teamed with Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., to propose the O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act, which turns over management for roughly half the so-called O&C lands to be guided by Oregon forest law and a committee representing a variety of backgrounds. The other half would be preserved with select thinning or other work needed to retain forest health, according to a news release.
The proposal was included as Title III of Hastings' forestry bill, House Resolution 1526.
The bill "will allow us to have more active management in Oregon's forests and across the landscape so that we can minimize the threat of wildfire, increase jobs in the woods and provide needed revenue for local government for essential services," Walden said in a video statement on his website.
Labrador's local-management proposal comes as Idaho ranks third in the country in total Secure Rural Schools payments, as 35 of the state's 44 counties receive the federal aid, according to his office. Congress approved the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000 to repay counties for cutbacks in timber receipts, but subsequent renewals have been at reduced spending levels.
The NCBA and PLC particularly applauded the forestry package's inclusion of a bill by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., which would put hard deadlines on analyses performed under the National Environmental Policy Act in areas with excessive fuel loads. The proposal would expedite livestock grazing and timber thinning to reduce hazardous fuels, the organizations explain.
The bill also includes a measure by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., to take further steps to reduce NEPA impediments to fuel-reduction projects, the groups observe.
The bill moves to the full House for consideration, which Walden believes could happen by September.
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