As catastrophic wildfires cut a deadly swath through California, President Trump has demanded more aggressive forest management — and as luck would have it, Rep. Bruce Westerman has a bill to do exactly that.
What’s more, the Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2017 already has passed the House. The problem: The bill has almost no chance of being approved by the Senate, where it has languished for more than a year, thanks to opposition from Senate Democrats and anti-logging environmental groups.
“I would give it very low odds of passing,” said Mr. Westerman, Arkansas Republican.
For him, the bill’s likely failure is particularly disheartening, given what he knows about forests and fire — quite a lot, actually.
The only certified forester in the House — he worked as a forestry engineer before he was elected in 2014 — Mr. Westerman has made it his mission to clear a path through the legal and regulatory thicket standing in the way of projects to cull the overgrown federally managed woods.
“We’ve got to do something different,” said Mr. Westerman. “It’s unacceptable, the level of destruction we’re seeing.”
He said better forest management could have made a difference in Northern California, where dry, beetle-kill federal forests have fueled the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the state’s recorded history.
“Now if you look at Southern California, forest management’s not going to play a big role in preventing fires like the Woolsey Fire. There is some landscape management that could help mitigate those risks,” he said. “But in Northern California, where you’ve got the national forest, we could do a much, much better job of making not only the forests but the communities more resilient.”
His 2017 legislation comes two years after his previous forestry bill — the Emergency Wildfire Forest Management Act of 2016 — met with the same fate, passing the House before skidding to a halt in the Senate.
Both bills were regarded with suspicion, if not outright hostility, by liberal environmental groups, which view “forest management” as a synonym for “clear cutting” and “propping up the logging industry.”
Tracy Coppola, a senior legislative counsel for the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, blasted Mr. Westerman’s latest legislation a “horrible … triple-whammy” that was “chock-full of gifts to the timber industry.”
“It’s unfathomable that, despite all the rhetoric about wanting to make our forests ‘resilient,’ that any member could push a measure that could actually increase the risks of catastrophic wildfires in the future,” Ms. Coppola said in a statement. “We’ll keep working with our allies in Congress to do everything we can to prevent this awful bill from ever becoming law.”
Even so, Mr. Westerman and his allies on the House Natural Resources Committee and Working Forests Caucus managed to insert some of the legislation’s provisions in the omnibus spending bill approved in March and the 2018 farm bill, which is still pending.
That includes expanding “good neighbor” authority, which allows state governments to pitch in on federal forest-management projects, and speeding up the process for salvage operations after a natural disaster such as a wildfire or hurricane.
‘A wall of wood’
What Democrats have refused to consider are reforms to curtail the legal challenges that hold up — and sometimes kill — tree-cutting and managed-burn projects on environmental grounds, filed by lawyers who are reimbursed if they succeed under the Equal Access to Justice Act.
“A lot of times it’s one or two lawyers that started an NGO [non-governmental organization],” said Mr. Westerman. “If you want to see where it’s really abused, look up in Region 1 of the Forest Service, where every time the Forest Service tries to implement a management plan, it gets tied up in court.”
Sections in the Resilient Federal Forest Act to streamline the environmental review process, which Earthjustice described as undermining “the public’s ability to hold government accountable,” have met with opposition on the other side of the aisle.
“Honestly, we couldn’t get anywhere with our Democratic colleagues, especially in the Senate, to get those provisions in the [omnibus] bill,” Mr. Westerman said. “I would be shocked if we’re able to get anything like that in the farm bill. The hill they won’t cross is to do anything to stop the frivolous lawsuits.”
With the 115th Congress concluding Jan. 3, Mr. Westerman already has begun work on forest-management legislation for the next session, which would include provisions to expand further “good neighbor” authority to tribes, counties and local governments.
He also wants to create a Forest Service “action/no action” requirement, which would require the agency to analyze the environmental impact of rejecting a proposed management project, not just the consequences of approving it.
“[We] pontificate on what the negative results of that plan would be, but nobody ever questions the negative results of not implementing an action,” Mr. Westerman said. “And we’re seeing those results right now.”
While environmentalists worry about avaricious logging companies leveling the nation’s forests, Mr. Westerman said the problem is actually the opposite: There are now too many trees.
“We grow a whole lot more trees than we can actually use,” he said. “People will come after me and say, ‘You’re wanting to cut [trees] on federal lands to help the forest products industry,’ but the forest products industry doesn’t need more timber.”
In Arkansas, “we’re producing 16 million more tons of wood every year than what we’re consuming. And that’s happening all across the South,” he said.
In the West, California has 129 million dead trees spread across 8.9 million acres, but little economic incentive to harvest them. Even if loggers did cut them down, there are few mills left, thanks to the collapse of the Pacific Northwest timber industry.
“We have a wall of wood and an oversupply of timber, which compounds the problem,” Mr. Westerman said. “If you want to manage the forests, you need markets for the timber, and a lot of the infrastructure out West has been decimated, and there’s just not mills to take the wood that needs to come off the forests.”
The problem won’t be solved overnight, but he hopes to spend his time in Congress finding long-term solutions.
“It’s taken decades to get in this situation where our forests are so unhealthy,” the congressman said. “And it takes decades to turn the tide and get it back to where we can make these forests more resilient.”