Resilient (?) Forests Act of 2017: a Bill Worth Watching

This summer’s wildfires have focused attention on forest management practices that could make fires less devastating.  While there is widespread agreement that changes in forest management have that potential, this attention could also be an opportunity for those who seek to tilt management of the public lands toward more timbering.

One of these attempts is the Resilient Forests Act of 2017.  The House Committee on Natural Resources says it “streamlines onerous environmental review processes.”  The Committee assumes that, freed from onerous environmental review, managers of public lands and the timber industry could cooperate to usher in a new era of enlightened and effective forest management.

To accomplish this, the bill would largely undo the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as it applies to certain forest management decisions.  NEPA opens the door to public participation in major federal actions.  One person’s “onerous environmental review” is another’s open and accountable government.

Among other things, the bill would

  • Increase the size of logging projects up to 30,000 acres.
  • Open the door for clear cutting of 10,000 acres for any purpose.
  • Allows the opening of some roadless areas for roadbuilding and logging
  • Allow herbicide spraying on over 15 square miles near rural/urban interfacing communities with minimal public notification and no analysis by the Forest Service as to the effects on human health and safety.
  • Eliminate and/or constrain the ability of citizens to challenge federal forest management decisions in court.
  • Eliminate judicial review of the chosen project.
  • Exempt the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management from consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to provisions on forest planning etc., the bill would also authorize a declaration of a natural disaster for major forest fires.  This would allow funds that are now dedicated to such disasters as hurricanes, floods, etc. to be used to fight fires.  Currently agencies faced with a major forest fire have to use money they would have spent on something else.  This bill would make disaster relief funds available so that the agencies would not have to do that.

The bill has been approved by the House Committee on Natural Resources.  It may be voted upon very soon, possibly by the time you read this.  If it is unable to pass as a stand-alone bill, it is possible that its provisions will be attached to the Farm Bill.  The Farm Bill funds and reauthorizes many agricultural programs.  Although its exact language is subject to lobbying, negotiation, etc. every year, it affects such a big fraction of the economy that it is considered a “must pass” bill.