The Southwest and Inter-Mountain West once had vibrant forest products industries that contributed to social, economic and environmental vitality of many communities. That “forest infrastructure” was decimated as changes in federal forest management all but eliminated timber harvesting from national forests. The costs of these policies continue to mount.
Forests in these regions are rapidly deteriorating as millions of acres have been impacted by catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease. These conditions threaten watersheds, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and millions of homes. The U.S. Forest Service clearly struggles to reduce fire dangers and improve forest health wherever there are few logging businesses left with the personnel, equipment, and technical expertise required to remove the wood, nor the sawmills to process the fiber.
The loss of forest infrastructure contributed to the poor health of our forests, and it is impacting industries some say would replace timber as a driving economic force in rural, forested communities. This spring several national forests in the region announced closures due to active wildfires and high fire risks, limiting recreational opportunities and economic activity from tourism. Among several significant forest closures, public access to nearly two million acres of Colorado’s San Juan National Forest was closed for the first time in more than a hundred years.
Diminishing access to public lands is not a new issue, especially to those of us of who live near national forests. Due to top-down decisions from Washington DC, the federal government has decommissioned and disinvested in its network of forest roads, and have dictated policies that don’t always align with the needs of local communities. This trust has been further eroded by the decline in timber harvests that help pay for road construction and maintenance. Not only have these decisions effectively locked citizens out of our public lands, they’ve restricted recreational and tourism opportunities, and have made fighting wildfires more dangerous and expensive.
The connection between forest products, forest health and access to public lands is clear. And that’s why we continue to advocate for reforms that put more people back to work in the woods.
Forestry in the Farm Bill
Thank you to those who answered our recent action alert, urging Congress to include meaningful reforms in the Farm Bill. This is likely our final opportunity this year to pass significant reforms that help reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire, insects, and disease. For more, read our recent op-ed in The Hill.
The U.S. House approved its Farm Bill on June 21 with strong forestry provisions including additional Categorical Exclusions for urgent forest projects, expedited National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews for post-fire salvage and reforestation projects, and streamlined Endangered Species Act (ESA) consultation procedures.
Unfortunately, the Senate Farm Bill proposal lacks meaningful forest management reforms, though the final version passed on June 28 includes a provision gives counties a greater role in federal forest management through Good Neighbor Authority law. Despite thousands of emails and phone calls to Congress, several key Democrats representing Western states lacked the will to defy environmental special interests and strengthen the legislation.
A conference committee of House and Senate members will soon convene to reconcile differences between the two proposals and pass a unified Farm Bill. We will continue to keep you posted on these developments.