Healthy Forests act: cure-all or threat?
Different versions of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act have been passed by the House and Senate. The action was taken in response to fires that have ravaged the West in recent years, including Southern California this fall.
A conference committee of legislators from both chambers is expected to convene soon to iron out differences between the bills.
Assuming that legislation is passed, it would greatly speed approvals for logging projects, a U.S. Forest Service official and an environmental watchdog agree. Whether or not it would open more public lands to logging is open to debate.
“The opportunities for abuse are pretty big,” charged Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop. “I challenge the Forest Service to be selective with the projects they approve.”
Mike Herth, resource staff officer at the White River National Forest supervisor’s office in Glenwood Springs, said the legislation probably wouldn’t spark logging in areas where it isn’t already planned.
“We’re going to stay within the parameters of the Forest Plan,” he said. A White River National Forest Plan was completed in June 2002. It provides a blueprint for forest management for the next 15 to 20 years.
That plan outlines where commercial logging would be permitted and where selective cutting and thinning would benefit forest health.
Bills overhauls process
The Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which was sponsored in the House by Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, would allow forest thinning without environmental reviews and limit the ability of opponents to challenge logging in court.
McInnis has been appointed as one of the House conferees to work with the Senate in the weeks ahead to craft a final agreement on the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.
“Fortunately, our similarities far outweigh our differences, and with a little good faith, hard work, and dedication to finding our common ground, I am confident that we can deliver a meaningful bill to the President in the weeks ahead,” McInnis said.
The Senate bill would require lawsuits to be filed within 15 days of when a project is approved and limit temporary injunctions by courts to 45 days.
An analysis of the Senate and House bills by the Associated Press showed that the Senate bill would limit thinning projects to 20 million at-risk acres and require that half of the $760 million authorized for the program be used in forests near populated areas. The other half of the funds could be used in backcountry areas to counter disease and beetle infestation as well as improve habitat.
The House bill would cover 35 million acres and provides no government funds or priorities for where the thinning should be conducted, including old-growth and roadless forests. The Senate specifically included provisions to protect large, old-growth trees. The House has no such safeguards.
McInnis said in a prepared statement that the Forest Service’s approval process needed to be changed from the current “conflict-oriented administrative appeals process,” which he contended creates “a significant source of delay for forest thinning projects.”
Shoemaker said independent analysis – including one by the Government Accounting Office, the nonpartisan, investigatory arm of Congress – indicate that appeals by the public and environmental groups have delayed only a small fraction of logging projects nationwide.
Two case studies
If the bill had been in place sooner, it would have greatly affected the outcome of two of the most recent logging proposals in the Roaring Fork drainage.
In the mid-1990s, the Sopris District of the Forest Service planned a substantial thinning project on the top of Basalt Mountain. The review spurred extensive public involvement that ultimately forced the Forest Service to shelve the project.
The House and Senate bills still require public meetings and, in fact, provide additional opportunities for public comment. But the Forest Service would no longer have to consider alternatives as it currently does.
Therefore, if the project was considered now the Forest Service might not feel a need to bow to public pressure to shelve the Basalt Mountain logging.
In another case, the Aspen Wilderness Workshop teamed with other groups two years ago to block a planned logging project in Baylor Park, near Glenwood’s Sunlight ski area.
The litigation forced the federal agency into an out-of-court settlement. It drastically reduced logging in the area, where wind had blown down a substantial number of spruce trees. The Forest Service also agreed to conduct full-blown environmental reviews on future logging proposals in Baylor Park.
Shoemaker said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to broker such a deal under the new bill.
High logging potential
If the healthy forest legislation greases the skids for logging projects, the results could be highly visible.
The Forest Plan approved last year designates 425,000 acres as suitable for timber sales. About 11 percent, or 48,000 acres, is located in the Fryingpan River drainage.
The Forest Plan said a beetle epidemic is imminent in the White River National Forest.
“Already, some (lodgepole) stands have been hit by beetles, most notably near Vail and Keystone,” the management plan said. “An epidemic in these areas similar to the epidemic of the early 1980s is likely.”
Shoemaker said he suspects additional lands will be targeted for logging under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
Herth said the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., office will interpret legislation soon after it passes. Until then, speculation on the meaning is useless.
“I don’t get excited until I see the final version,” he said.
Will it help?
Whether the new legislation will reduce fire risk in the Roaring Fork Valley is questionable. McInnis acknowledged last summer that his bill wouldn’t have prevented the devastating Coal Seam fire in Glenwood Springs in 2002.
Shoemaker said 85 percent of the lands at high risk of wildfire are private. Thinning forests away from what’s known as the wild land/urban interface – where homes abut forests – will do nothing but boost the logging industry, he said.
“What does (the legislation) mean for our communities? It doesn’t mean squat,” Shoemaker said. “The Forest Service can put resources in the backcountry, away from the communities at risk.”
Environmental organizations contend that the Senate was pressured into taking action due to the fires in California.
However, support for taking action was extensive and bipartisan in the House and Senate.