Wild places sustain and define us; we, in turn, must protect them.
The U.S. House of Representatives is currently considering H.R. 2936, the deceitfully-named Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017. The bill is sponsored by Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, who’s largest campaign donor is the timber industry. The Westerman bill truly represents one of the greatest threats to our public national forests since their inception. If you think our public lands should be more than lawless timber farms for the forest products industry, please read on and then call your member of Congress.
The bill is extensive, and can be read in its entirety and tracked at Congress.gov. Below we summarize some of the most concerning provisions that will directly affect Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest and Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
No environmental reviews for logging projects up to 10,000 acres
The Westerman bill carves out a large number of “Categorical Exclusions” for logging projects on national forest lands. Categorical Exclusions, or "CEs," allow an agency to avoid environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). What this means is that the Forest Service will be able approve logging projects, including clearcuts, up to 10,000 acres (and up to 30,000 acres in some circumstances) without performing an environmental assessment (EA) or environmental impact statement (EIS) to analyze and disclose the effects of the project. Public notice and opportunities for public input will amount to a single 30-day comment period over an abbreviated proposal that may only provide a few pages of information. And that’s it.
The authorities to use Categorical Exclusions under the Westerman bill are unbelievably broad, and include the purposes of “produce(ing) timber” and “creat(ing) early successional forests for wildlife habitat improvement and other purposes.” Early successional habitat means clearcuts and other similar regeneration harvests. Categorical Exclusions are also granted for a wide range of thinning and salvage projects.
Weakening endangered species protections
The bill does away with requirements under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act that ensure the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if logging projects will negatively impact threatened and endangered species and designated critical habitat. These are crucial safeguards for protecting our most vulnerable species. In Kentucky this could affect the Indiana bat, Kentucky arrow darter, White fringeless orchid, and at least 24 other federally-listed threatened and endangered species that rely on national forest lands in the state.
Reallocating restoration funds to timber projects
National forest counties currently get financial support through the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act to make up for the fact that national forests do not pay property taxes. Title II of the Secure Rural Schools act provides support for restoration work that improves watersheds and forest health, and currently cannot be spent on timber projects or road construction. On the Daniel Boone NF, Title II funds have been used to support treating hemlocks to save them from the hemlock woolly adelgid, addressing erosion from poorly constructed roads and trails, renovating campgrounds, and building trailhead kiosks. The Westerman bill requires that 50% of the funds currently being allocated to these restoration and recreation projects be allocated instead to projects that include the sale of timber.
Blocking access to the courts
Because of the broad use of Categorical Exclusions under the Westerman bill (which limit opportunities for public input and administrative challenges), going to court may be the only option left to the public for seeking redress. But the law allows the Forest Service to bypass the courts by requiring complaints to go through a binding arbitration process. And if the Forest Service is found to have violated the law (either through judicial review or arbitration), the bill exempts the Forest Service from complying with the Equal Access to Justice Act – meaning that plaintiffs cannot be awarded any attorney’s fees or recuperate other costs if they win. While litigation over timber sales is infrequent, recouping legal costs is often crucial to organizations and attorneys who work to protect our public lands. And it can't be stressed enough that if the Forest Service loses a case in court, it means that they broke the law.
And that’s all just for starters. There are a great deal of other provisions that affect other aspects of national forest management, our national monuments, roadless areas, and other public lands.
You can read another analysis of the bill here.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 has already passed committee, and is expected to come up for a full vote in the House after the August recess. It’s not clear how companion legislation will come about in the Senate, but a bill recently introduced in the Senate by Senator John Thune of South Dakota called the "Forest Management Improvement Act of 2017" mirrors some of the provisions of the Westerman bill. The 2018 Farm Bill may also be used as a legislative vehicle for passage in the Senate.
Please call your Congressman today!
You can find your representative's contact information at www.contactingcongress.org. Ask them to oppose H.R. 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017. This bill is bad for our public lands, and it's bad for Kentucky.