Idaho Congressman Russ Fulcher is pushing for the passage of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2019, this year’s iteration of a bill that would provide for, among other things, clearing trees in the name of wildfire prevention.
“It’s not clear-cutting,” Fulcher said in a phone interview with The Press. “So often, when you think of logging, you think of clear-cutting, and that’s the wrong connotation. [This bill] promotes thinning and responsible management. Our objective is to localize [forest management] as much as we can, because driving policy from Washington, D.C., just doesn’t make sense with something like this.”
Under the bill introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas), developing or revising a forest plan would no longer be categorized as a “major federal action” that would fall under the purview of 1969’s National Environmental Policy Act, thus speeding up the process for wildfire prevention and recovery. Fulcher is a co-sponsor of the bill, introduced on the House floor earlier this week.
“There is a significant part of [Congress] that doesn’t recognize there are states in which the majority of lands are federal lands,” Fulcher said. “In the conversations I’ve had with other representatives from the East Coast, for example, they’re shocked — shocked — to learn that such a huge percentage of Idaho falls under federal land.”
The bill also calls for lawsuits — largely generated by environmental groups, Fulcher said — to go to arbitration in a pilot program.
“Some of the people in these environmental movements filing lawsuits have never once set foot in Idaho,” he said. “What I’m trying to do, and what this bill is trying to do, is say, ‘Look, if you have a problem with how we’re managing our resources with Idaho, instead of clogging up the courts where you have no skin in the game, use arbitration. And if you use arbitration, you have to come to the table with a solution.’ They can’t just say ‘no’ and leave it at that. They have to come to the table with a solution.”
2017’s version of the Resilient Federal Forests Act, also introduced by Westerman, passed in a then-Republican-held House before dying in a Senate committee. Fulcher admits this year’s passage in a Democrat-controlled House will be more challenging.
“I’m flying a flag on this one,” he said. “Our forests are our livelihood in many parts of our state. If we can prove, even in a pilot program, that this can be effective forest management, we can save lives.”
The bill exempts old growth forest from harvesting timber but calls for localized thinning, among other provisions.
The bill has gained the support of the timber and logging industry, including Idaho Forest Group, one of the country’s largest timber providers with six sawmills across North Idaho and Montana.
“Idaho Forest Group supports the Resilient Federal Forests Act and Congressman Westerman’s tireless efforts to allow the federal agencies to more rapidly restore resilience to the forest while also protecting the health and the vitality of the communities that border these lands,” according to Tom Schultz, IFG vice president for government affairs. “The additional Categorical Exclusions proposed in the Act will assist essential forest management projects to move forward at a rate more adapted to the urgent need.”
The Categorical Exclusions in Westerman’s bill, now classified as House Resolution 2607, creates zones where federal forest land is excluded from environmental review, environmental impact or environmental assessment by the National Environmental Policy Act, covering as much as 30,000 acres for harvest. The bill also limits environmental assessments and impact statements to focus on two possible outcomes without specifying methodology: action or no action. The 2017 version of the bill, which carried similar provisions, generated criticism from its opposition.
“I am … concerned that this bill limits public participation in the management of public lands,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) said before voting against the 2017 bill. “It reduces the consideration of forest management alternatives to two options: action or no action. It creates overly broad exclusions for projects to skirt environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.”
Bonamici added that the bill reduced opportunities for the public to engage meaningfully in forest management decisions, and that an arbitration pilot program would circumvent the judicial process.
Schultz maintains the new bill represents a more collaborative process.
“Idaho Forest Group is a long-term active participant on many forest collaboratives, and we respect the huge commitment of time, learning, and patience these groups demand of their members,” he wrote. “The Resilient Federal Forests Act recognizes the thoughtful and inclusive work of the collaboratives by streamlining the excessive analysis requirements required from collaboratively developed projects.”
Fulcher believes the bill will serve as preventative measures in the event of catastrophe.
“Right now,” he said, “we’re in a lose-lose situation. We have a resource — in this case, timber — and we’re burning it up. We’re losing it to wildfires.
“Last year, 1,102 wildfires burned up 605,000 acres. That resource is gone. This bill provides thoughtful, managed care to our forests that not only provides revenue but will prevent wildfires … If we do this right, my kids and your kids will still be able to enjoy those forests.”