A “Fix” for the Forest Service

By Hugh Rogers

“I never think it is a good deal when the Democrats get money and the Republicans get to change the environmental laws.” So Brett Hartl, of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), doesn’t like the deal that will give the Forest Service a break on its bills for fighting fires.

Here’s the problem: in the past twenty years, the share of the Forest Service’s annual budget spent on putting out fires has shot up from 20% to 60%, with a corresponding change in the jobs of its employees. Since the money allocated for fires has not caught up with the actual cost, the agency has to pinch its other programs.

Here’s the deal: while half the budget will continue to be dedicated to fire suppression, when costs exceed that (as expected), the Forest Service will be able to draw money from an emergency disaster fund—preserving the other programs.

This arrangement was anticipated, or anyway hoped for, when we attended the Forest Service “roundtable” in Elkins (reported in the April Voice), shortly before Congress passed the budget. What remained to be seen was the cost—not the money, but the legal changes that Republicans would require. Now we know. Jessica Kutz summarized it in High Country Newson March 29:

The bill includes two riders . . . The first will allow logging projects less than 3,000 acres in size to move forward with little environmental review, so long as the goal of those projects is to reduce heavy fuel loads that increase fire risk.  …

A second provision could delay habitat protections for newly listed threatened and endangered species. It targets a 2015 ruling . . . which determined that the Forest Service is obligated to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when new species are listed to evaluate whether its management plans might harm the species. … The forest plans are management blueprints for large landscapes, and the rider to the fire fix essentially allows the agency to skip this big picture review for newly listed species. …

The agency will still have to consider the effects of logging projects within a species’ habitat on a case-by-case basis. But the change means it could approve a number of small projects without considering their cumulative impact. … Each new project could gradually whittle away their habitat.

Conservation organizations disagree on whether the “fire fix” is worth it. Out West, where relations with the agency tend to be adversarial, trust is in short supply. The CBD’s Hartl sees “a green light for abuse. Three thousand here, 3,000 there. Soon you are talking a lot of acres.”  That is, if each of those 3,000-acre logging jobs is justified as a reduction of fire risk.

Another organization with which the Highlands Conservancy has worked, The Nature Conservancy, was involved in the negotiations that led to this agreement. Their policy advisor called it a great deal: “You are talking about stabilizing the Forest Service budget so that they can do the activities they should be focused on.”

But look at the baseline: the agency still has to spend half its annual appropriation on fire. It has become a hybrid Forest Service/Fire Service. On paper, it gains maybe 10% to help with its backlog of watershed restoration, road ripping, trail improvements, and much else. It may fall behind more slowly.

No one should think a couple of “riders” in the budget bill would satisfy this climate change-denying administration’s appetite for resource extraction. It’s all of a piece: Drill more, dig more, cut more. Under pressure, the Monongahela National Forest has developed a five-year plan to increase timber production. In 2017, the final tally was 11.3 million board feet. That is projected to rise steadily, from 15 to 17, 19, 20, and 30 MMBF in 2018 and succeeding years.

This year’s estimate, by the way, includes two clear-cutting projects on which timber is merely a by-product: Corridor H and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Currently, logging affects only 2 to 3 percent of the land base. By my calculation, that could be 5% in 2020, when the acreage involved is projected to approach 48,000 acres. The Mon hopes to “leverage” this operation in the interest of its long-range goals: clean air and water; forest restoration, fisheries, threatened and endangered species; trails and other recreation; and, of course, research. As the Rivers Coalition’s Angie Rosser put it, outcome is more important than output.