The U.S. House is scheduled to vote today on a forestry bill that would increase logging in areas such as the national forests west of Yakima, where timber harvests are a fraction of those of the 1980s.
Depending on who’s talking, the bill would either create jobs, reduce fire risks and enrich local and federal coffers, or it would bypass environmental regulations and limit legal challenges.
The bill, which would require each national forest to designate “forest revenue reserves” and set harvest volumes, was introduced by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
“Federal regulations and lawsuits have effectively shut down our national forests,” Hastings said on the House floor Thursday. “These forests are the backbone of these communities’ economy.”
Hastings represents the state’s 4th Congressional District, which includes Yakima County.
The bill, known as the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, would more than double timber harvests in national forests, which have dropped precipitously in recent decades. The federal government would give 25 percent of revenues from timber sales back to the counties with national forest land, including Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas. Advocates call the plan a return to active forest management that could reduce wildfire risks, improve forest health, create about 200,000 jobs nationally and raise funds for rural communities.
President Barack Obama promised to veto the legislation in a statement released Wednesday, citing concerns that it would undermine environmental regulations and public land management.
House members who testified on Thursday spoke to the need for more forest management to thin fuels and reduce the risk of catastrophic and expensive wildfires. This season, firefighting efforts have cost more than $1 billion.
The forests in Eastern Washington are particularly at risk for wildfire because of the dry climate and increasingly dense growth of small trees, said Bruce Bare, director of the Institute for Forest Resources at the University of Washington. Thinning the forests would increase forest health, but using either mechanical thinning or prescribed fire is expensive work in a time of tight federal budgets.
“The trees are too dense. Just like in your garden, you need to pull the weeds,” Bare said. “The national forests are in the worst condition because, largely for political reasons, they have not been able to thin those trees.”
There’s not much money to be made from thinning out small trees unless a plant that can turn biomass into biofuel is located nearby, so raising revenue, as the bill requires, would mean more timber harvest.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the bill a start to an important conversation on active forest management, but criticized its provisions that reduce public comment processes and give states more control of resources that should belong to all Americans.
The bill targets forest land already designated for commercial use, and would require the sale of at least half the sustainable yield from these lands every year.
The legislation’s emphasis on revenue generation echoes forest service policies from decades ago, Bare said.
Timber harvests in the national forests are down 80 percent from 30 years ago, and Eastern Washington’s forests are no exception. Washington and Oregon’s forests provided much of the timber revenue for the Forest Service after World War II, but harvest dropped significantly in 1990, in part because habitat protections for the spotted owl took many acres out of production, Bare said.
Another factor in the Northwest’s timber decline was that around the same time, much of the privately owned old-growth acreage had already been cut, and many secondary forests had not yet grown enough to be profitably logged again.
In 2010, almost 35 million board feet were harvested from the Okanagon-Wenatchee National Forest, down from a high of about 330 million board feet in 1987.
“We changed from an extractive approach to a kinder stewardship model and now we have trouble convincing people that to improve the forest we need to go in and cut some trees,” Bare said.
But environmental groups don’t trust the bill’s emphasis on revenue requirements or the approach to reducing regulatory red tape. The Washington chapter of the Audubon Society is encouraging members to speak out against the bill.
“With its unsustainable logging and industrialized development requirements, this bill would mandate destruction of the benefits that our public forest lands provide, such as clean drinking water, recreation, and bird and wildlife habitat,” the conservation group said in a statement.