Guest opinion: Forest Service needs direction from Barrasso bill

2014-04-18T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Forest Service needs direction from Barrasso billBy ED REGAN The Billings Gazette
April 18, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., recently introduced the National Forest Jobs and Management Act, which creates a 15-year pilot project on 3.8 percent of the 191 million acre National Forest system. On this pilot area, forest management projects would be conducted using streamlined compliance processes, and disputes, instead of going to court, would go to binding arbitration.

On the remaining 183.5 million acres of the National Forests, nothing would change. This includes the 36 million acres of designated wilderness, and most of the 58.5 million acres designated as “roadless.” The Forest Service can continue to work in collaborative groups, use its Stewardship contracts, and focus fuels reduction in the Wildland Urban Interface.

The bill’s opponents falsely claim that the bill makes timber a “dominant use” on the National Forests, or that it is an unfunded mandate that somehow disrupts forest planning. The fact is that Congress has permanently set aside 36 million acres of National Forests as wilderness. The Clinton Administration set aside 58.5 million acres of National Forests as “roadless,” where most activities are off limits. So fully half the National Forest system is already off limits to most management.

24% ‘suited for timber’

Approximately 24 percent of the National Forests are designated in current forest plans as “suited for timber production.” Yet even modest projects are still subject to extraordinary levels of analysis. These projects, frequently recommended by collaborative groups or community wildfire protection plans, run the gauntlet of administrative objections and then frequently end up tied up by the courts, sometimes for years. The Barrasso bill would apply on just a fraction of these acres where timber production is called for in the forest plans.

Congress has begun to recognize that court driven management is not working, either for the timber industry, the general public which relies on the forests for water, wildlife, and recreation, or for the taxpayer. Scaled back management for the last 20-plus years has let too much fuel accumulate and reduced economic activity, while creating a fire hazard.

Since 2003, Congress has acted to encourage the Forest Service to manage the National Forests. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act prioritized hazardous fuels reduction work in the Wildland Urban Interface. That bill passed both Houses with strong bipartisan majorities, with just 11 votes against in the Senate. In 2009, Congress authorized the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act to encourage people to come together to design forest management projects. In 2011, Congress moved to streamline the objection process. The 2014 Farm Bill provided expedited management for critical watersheds, expanded pilot “Good Neighbor Authority” to all 50 States, and authorized the use of modern tree marking techniques to expedite timber sales.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service either doesn’t take advantage of these tools, or even when they do, the relatively modest forest management projects they propose are still blocked by activist groups who won’t participate in collaboration. Instead, they seek to block projects solely on procedural grounds. Needed projects are delayed, enjoined, or canceled, and the fabric of poor rural communities frays even further.

Montana logging delays

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Montana, where timber outputs have declined precipitously. In the last three years alone 91 percent of the commercial saw-log volume scheduled to be sold has been postponed because of appeals or litigation.

Congress must stop giving the Forest Service permission to manage and to start giving them direction to manage. Where a forest plan says timber management is appropriate, timber management ought to be possible. By clarifying the mandate on a portion of the National Forests, the Barrasso bill is an opportunity to stop wasting resources on endless analysis. The Forest Service can use non-commercial management on WUI, and implement collaborative projects wherever they want. But on a small portion of the system, Congress needs to tell them to manage to support wood using industries. And the courts need to know what the mission is, so they can stop making it up on their own.

Ed Regan is resource manager for RY Timber, Inc. in Townsend.

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