LAST WEEK, we alluded to the gridlock affecting Congress, with its seeming reluctance to pass anything in advance of the 2020 elections. One bill in an apparent holding pattern is Congressman Bruce Westerman’s (R-AR) H.R 2607, the Resilient Federal Forests Act, which would improve the health of federal forests and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.
Westerman is the only licensed forester in the Congress.
A significant component of the bill would provide categorical exclusions to the National Environmental Policy Act to let the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management expedite routine forest management activities, such as tree thinning and harvesting timber. Such activities would reduce the threat of insects and pests, disease and wildfires.
Catastrophic wildfires have decimated much of our landscape in recent years, destroying property and lives. Aging forests, many too thick with trees and invasive species, or riddled with standing dead or dying trees caused by a host of insects and diseases, are a significant factor in such fires.
The solution is actively managing forests, which results in forests with varying stages of growth. Such forests support the greatest numbers of wildlife. For example, a 2014 update to the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests’ management plans included detailed studies of 270 wildlife species classified as threatened or endangered, sensitive, locally rare or public interest. The “public interest” species included many game species.
Researchers found 109 of these 270 species, all of which use the forest, need early successional habitat for their entire life cycle needs. An additional 133 species need a mix of early successional habitat and mature habitat in close proximity. Only 14 species could cope with mature forests for all life cycle needs.
The decline in wildlife species in Virginia’s national forests due to a lack of active management has been significant. Few grouse hunters remain; there aren’t enough birds. Deer and turkey populations are down on these lands because the habitat isn’t conducive to supporting vibrant numbers of the species.
Even with Westerman’s bill bogged down, there is opportunity. The Forest Service in June proposed revisions to National Environmental Policy Act regulations. The revisions are expected to increase the agency’s efficiency in its environmental analysis without compromising NEPA requirements or environmental stewardship responsibilities.
In announcing the proposed changes, the Forest Service highlighted pressing challenges, noting wildland fire management funding comprised just 16 percent of its annual spending in 1995. In 2018, that spending accounted for 57 percent of the budget. Most of the money and people are going to fighting fires, not managing forests.
The goal is to modernize business, speed up processes and enable the service to tackle much-needed, backlogged work. More than 80 million acres of federal forests need treatment. More than 5,000-plus special-use permits related to the backlog of forest, watershed and range restoration projects are delayed. According to the Forest Service, the current NEPA regulations mostly reflect policies and practices established by the 1992 NEPA Manual and Handbook.
Proposed categorical exclusions would be for restoration projects, roads and trails management, recreation and facility management, plus special use authorizations that issue permits for outfitters and guides, community organizations, civic groups and others seeking to recreate on national forests and grasslands. The improvements are expected to reduce process delays for routine activities by months or years.
“We have pored over 10 years of environmental data and have found that in many cases, we do redundant analyses, slowing down important work to protect communities, livelihoods and resources,” Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said. “We now have an opportunity to use that information to our advantage, and we want to hear from the people we serve to improve these proposed updates.”
I know some people don’t like looking at clear-cut hillsides, mainly for aesthetic reasons. For people knowledgeable about wildlife habitat, though, those cut areas can be a thing of beauty. They create important wildlife openings and young-growth habitat used by a multitude of species.
Let me share a secret: you can still be a tree-hugger and wildlife supporter while also accepting the need for active management in our forests. A managed forest and the life residing in it are healthier.
Take the opportunity to comment on the Forest Service’s proposed regulatory changes. Active management opponents are fighting this. It is amazing to read many of the comments about this long-smoldering issue and see how many people don’t understand wildlife in terms of habitat needs, instead laying it at the door of “Trump greed.” Nearly 35,000 comments were considered last year during an advance-notice public comment period.
If formally adopted, the Forest Service expects to publish the rule revising the Forest Service NEPA regulations and associated directives in summer 2020.
The deadline for final written comments is Aug. 12. It’s easy; it took me five minutes. You can read the full proposal and make online comments at: federalregister.gov/documents /2019/06/13/2019-12195/national-environmental-policy-act-nepa-compliance.