Private logging key to improving national forests, say Western governors

Posted: Apr 19, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E News PM

The Western Governors' Association wants the Forest Service to expand the use of public-private partnerships in an effort to help restore environmentally stressed national forestlands that in recent years have been plagued by drought, climate change and wildfires.

In a two-page letter sent today to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the WGA says a key to accelerating badly needed restoration work on national forests and grasslands is to contract private companies to conduct "vegetative management activities" and logging to clear dry brush and dead trees that can increase the size and intensity of wildfires.

"We have been concerned for some time that federal forest lands throughout the West are experiencing serious environmental stresses that affect the health and vitality of these ecosystems. They are overgrown; they exhibit all the symptoms of an unhealthy ecosystem; and they demand urgent attention," according to the letter signed by Utah Gov. and WGA Chairman Gary Herbert (R) and Colorado Gov. and WGA Vice Chairman John Hickenlooper (D).

"Now is the time for the U.S. Forest Service to accelerate its efforts to promote sound forest management policies that maintain ecological balance," they wrote.

The governors requested in the letter that Vilsack form a "forest industry task group" to devise economically viable options for companies to do more forest thinning projects, such as increasing sawmills and other infrastructure needed to process the timber into wood products.

One possibility is to make environmental reviews of thinning and restoration projects that are required under the National Environmental Policy Act more efficient. This could be done by identifying areas where thinning and restoration work is needed, then conducting a single, broad environmental analysis of the entire project area instead of a separate review for each project, said Ann Walker, WGA's program director for forest and rangeland health based in Denver.

Such an approach could help accelerate ongoing forest restoration work at a time of budget sequestration cuts. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell acknowledged today during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee budget hearing that the cuts have forced the agency to scale back the scope of some programs that could help reduce wildfire risks.

"Private-sector forest professionals are a cost-effective tool that the U.S. Forest Service can utilize to handle this immense workload," Herbert said in a separate statement. "And by using the private sector, we also help support our declining forest industry and suffering rural economies."

Forest Service officials say they understand concerns about forest management after states across the West, particularly Colorado, were wracked last summer by large wildfires that destroyed tens of thousands of acres and burned hundreds of homes. In total, wildfires destroyed more than 9 million acres nationwide last year, making 2012 the third-largest wildfire season in terms of acreage since the 1960s.

The Forest Service currently spends 40 percent of its annual budget on fire-related activities, compared with only 13 percent two decades ago (E&E Daily, April 15).

Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Southern California and other regions are projected to face increased wildfire threats this year (Greenwire, April 3).

The Forest Service in 2010 allocated only about 30 percent of its annual budget to forest management, compared with nearly 70 percent three decades ago, leaving "fewer funds available to manage the more than 193 million acres of national forests for forest health and fuels reduction," according to the governors' letter.

The Agriculture Department, through Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, issued an emailed statement to E&ENews PM outlining steps the agency has taken in recent years "to address forest health challenges on our National Forests."

That includes a report released last year outlining steps to increase the pace of restoration and job creation on national forestlands in the face of wildfire threats, climate change and the bark beetle infestation.

"Over the last four years, the Forest Service increased the amount of timber sold over the previous four years and has set ambitious targets for continuing to treat additional acres on the National Forests," according to the statement.

The Forest Service has spent more than $100 million per year to address the bark beetle epidemic, according to the statement. And the agency has developed large-scale restoration projects, including the 1-million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona, a 200,000-acre project in the Black Hills National Forest and nearly two dozen projects through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program.

In addition, the Forest Service has a successful stewardship-contracting program that allows the agency to use revenues from timber sales to fund forest restoration projects like vegetation management. The effort enjoys bipartisan backing and has drawn support from environmental groups in favor of thinning projects, but is set to expire this fall.

The WGA supports all of those efforts. But the governors also want to see more progress, according to the letter sent to Vilsack.

"We have met with you and your staff on many occasions and shared our concerns, yet we remain dissatisfied with the pace of response," they wrote.

Congress is already considering several pieces of legislation that would address these issues.

House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) has proposed requiring the Forest Service to establish one or more "forest reserve revenue areas" on each of its units where it would be required to harvest at least half the amount of timber the forest grows annually. In addition, H.R. 818 by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) and H.R. 1345 by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) would both provide agencies greater latitude to approve forest thinning projects that reduce the risk of severe wildfire and insect invasions (E&E Daily, April 9).

But private logging activity on national forestland has encountered sharp resistance from environmental groups.

Efforts by the Forest Service to do so are usually met with lawsuits. For example, a federal judge in March ruled the service did not properly analyze the environmental impacts of a proposed 2,100-acre logging project on national forestland in western Oregon. Portland-based Oregon Wild and Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands filed a lawsuit challenging the proposal (E&ENews PM, March 27).

But such activities are one legitimate option to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risks, according to the WGA.

"With continued uncertainty due to sequestration and the potential for further federal budget cuts, we recognize the financial challenges involved in such an endeavor, but believe that engaging the forest products industry as a partner can help alleviate some of these challenges," according to the letter.

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