In a moment of agreement and productivity, the House of Representatives passed the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act (H.R. 1526) on September 20. Advocates say the proposed legislation will improve forest health, create jobs, generate funds for the federal and local government and minimize wildfire risks. The bill has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and awaits consideration by the full Senate.
Unfortunately, there is little optimism the bill will pass the Senate. President Obama has also indicated plans to veto the legislation, should it somehow pass, over concerns related to environmental regulations and public land management.
Despite the grim outlook, hope remains for new forest management legislation of some sort. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), an outspoken supporter of rural communities that depend on forests for income, chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee where the bill now sits. Wyden, who is reported to have plans to introduce a forest bill of his own this fall, may be able to salvage portions of the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act for passage in the Senate.
The bill would require the Forest Service to harvest at least half the sustainable yield of timber from forestlands already designated for commercial use. It would also make it more difficult for groups opposed to increased logging to file lawsuits against the activity.
Supporters note timber harvests in national forests have declined 80 percent over the past 30 years. Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA), the Act’s sponsor, noted in 2012 the Forest Service harvested timber from only 200,000 acres. According to the Congressional Budget Office estimates, the proposed timber sales would generate and additional $2 billion over a 10-year period.
Secure Rural Schools Program Extension
Payments to counties with national forest land would continue under a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools Program (SRS). In the absence of timber revenues, rural communities rely on these government payments to fund schools and other essential functions such as law enforcement and emergency services. The federal government is obligated to provide 25 percent of timber sales revenues to counties with national forest land; SRS payments make up for the monetary shortfall that resulted from decreased timber harvests.
O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act
Aimed to improve the management of O&C lands, this bill was incorporated into the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act. The provision calls for a state-appointed trust to manage half of the O&C lands for timber production and the other half for fish and wildlife habitat and wilderness areas.
Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act
This Act, also incorporated into the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, aims to give states the authority to identify national forest areas at risk due to deteriorating forest health conditions and to engage in fuel reduction projects in such areas. In 2012, wildfires burned 9.3 million acres and cost the federal government nearly $2 billion.
States to Manage
Lastly, the bill would authorize the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to enter into contracts with groups outside the federal government in order to carry out forest management activities. States across the nation spend less money on forest management while consistently outperforming federally managed forests in regards to board feet harvested and overall revenue production. Read more at What States Can Teach the Federal Government about Forest Management.
It remains to be seen what, if anything, will come from the passage of the House bill. As rural communities with economies largely dependent upon timberland continue to feel the squeeze of reduced timber harvests and fewer government payments, and other areas deal with devastating wildfires, it is clear legislators will have to take action. The Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act may not be perfect, but it is certainly a start to address these persistent issues.