by Nick Smith, Executive Director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities
Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities (HFHC) was launched over five years ago to give Americans a stronger voice in the management of our federally-owned forests. A primary goal has always been to pass effective reforms in Congress that provide more opportunities for multiple-use active management, improve the health and accessibility of our public lands, while providing true social and economic stability in our rural communities. Thanks to you we’re making progress. But ultimately progress is determined by those who are elected to make decisions.
Let’s discuss the 2018 results, what they mean for federal forest management, and why we ask that you stay informed and involved. Your voice and engagement will be needed more than ever.
As most expected, Democrats have taken control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Over the past several years, the U.S. House has consistently supported reforms aimed at accelerating forest management and supporting rural economies. Most recently these reforms have focused on untying the hands of federal land managers to expedite logging, thinning and prescribed burning on forests that are at immediate risk of catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease, as well as to enhance watershed health and habitat for wildlife dependent on young- and mixed-aged forests.
Even in this hyper-partisan environment, these measures have received support from Democratic members representing communities that have been impacted by scientifically-outdated and ineffective policies.
Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona will likely become chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Despite representing a state with dire forest health and wildfire concerns, Grijalva has consistently opposed forest management reforms in the House. He has expressed hostility to our domestic timber industry that provides much of the infrastructure necessary for forest management and restoration on a wide scale.
During the campaign Grijalva told the media his committee will spend considerable time investigating the Trump administration. It is also likely his committee will seek to pass bills long bottled-up by Republicans. These could include new designated wilderness areas, land set-asides, expansion of “roadless areas” and additional regulations that will continue to reduce the amount of lands available for active management.
Notably, Democratic Congressman Collin Peterson of Minnesota will take over House Agriculture Committee. Coming from a rural and forested district, Peterson has joined Republicans in supporting strong forest management reforms in the past. There will be considerable challenges in the U.S. House over the next two years. But there is also an opportunity for a growing bipartisan coalition to promote and protect the practice of forest management on public lands.
Even under Republican control, the U.S. Senate has been slow to address our forest health crisis. The Senate has yet to pass significant forestry legislation, aside from a “fix” that changes the way we pay for growing wildfire suppression costs that was coupled with modest forest management reforms.
On Tuesday, Republicans maintained and even grew their Senate majority. It is unclear how this will change the Senate’s apathy, which is why we must continue to hold our Senators accountable. Fortunately, there are those such as Montana Sen. Steve Daines who will continue to explain why bold action is needed. We need our Senators to act if we are ever going to break the cycle of wildfires, insect infestations and disease on our federal forests.
The Trump Administration has prioritized active forest management, and the Forest Service has responded by seeking to sell more timber and increase acres for treatment (see Briefs). The administration has also sought to streamline duplicative and often conflicting processes under federal laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act so federal land managers can do more work on the ground, more quickly. At the same time, the administration has proposed flat or reduced funding for some forestry-related budgets. We expect the administration to maintain its focus on forest management, even if cabinet officials such as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke leave the administration as rumored.
Lame Duck session and beyond
The current Congress will meet one more time for its traditional post-election “lame duck” session. House and Senate leaders are expected to resume negotiations on the next Farm Bill, which is the one remaining opportunity to pass major forest management reforms. They will also need to pass annual appropriations measures for about half of the federal agencies, including the Forest Service and BLM.
If you haven’t already, please take a moment to send an email to your members of Congress and tell them the time to pass effective forestry solutions in the Farm Bill is now (Click here). There may also be action on public lands bills, potentially tied to a deal to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund that has been used to acquire more federal lands.