Bipartisan Solutions for Wildfire Funding and Comprehensive Reporting

I’m always interested in how stories about “things we know about” are covered in the press- especially what we might call the “coastal press”.

I noticed in our Saturday Colorado Springs Gazette that there was an article “How Congress’formula for wildfires makes them worse” here
attributed to Evan Halper of “the Tribune Washington Bureau” but I think he works for the LA Times from DC. I was particularly interested because he said:

“Partisan feuds over climate change, clear-cutting and bedrock federal environmental policies are undermining efforts to confront the rapidly swelling fire money dilemma.” As we shall see below, this may be only half the real story.

But Congress can’t seem to figure out how, amid feuding about the science and economics of wildfires. Many Republicans are demanding that any solution involve intensifying the amount of logging on public land, allowing clear-cuts as large as 10- or 15-square miles in federal forests, and weakening the National Environmental Protection Act, the 1969 landmark law that drives much of federal conservation policy.

The rollbacks are nonstarters for Democrats, who brandish research findings that climate change is a major driver of the intensifying fires, not too little commercial logging. California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris last week sent Trump a letter as fires raged in Northern California imploring him to support fixing the Forest Service money problem in a stand-alone measure, and then deal with the broader disputes over forestry management separately.

Does anyone know where the “10-15 square mile clearcut” came from? It seems kind of silly as the efforts we have been talking about are more along the lines of thinning and shaded fuel breaks. But I’m sure legislation that I think of as silly is possible. Is anyone familiar enough with the legislation to weigh in on this?

Democrats and environmentalists say the House measure that McClintock and other Republicans favor to fix the Forest Service funding problem is less about fighting fires than creating a big giveaway for logging interests. “We don’t think completely eliminating environmental safeguards will solve the problem or make us safer,” said Megan Birzell, national forests campaign manager at the Wilderness Society. “We don’t need 10,000-acre clear cuts in the back country to solve this.”

So a person writing for the LA Times from DC has framed this as about “logging” versus suppression. As we have seen over the summer, it’s much more complicated than that especially since national policies affect areas that want fuel treatments but don’t have active forest product (“logging”) industries. Apparently (at least some) folks in the Senate agree with me.

The Halper piece was published in the Gazette here on October 21. While I was catching up, I saw Steve’s link in a comment here to an E&E News on Cantwell et al.’s Senate bill. Halper’s LA Times article was dated October 18. Can we infer that there are two efforts.. one in the House that has gotten bogged down in partisanship and one in the Senate that (apparently) hasn’t and has people working across the aisle? The real news is the bill that has a chance of going somewhere. IMHO. Kudos to E&E News for telling us that story.

5 Comments

  1. I recently saw another crazy Sierra Club claim that Muir Woods National Monument could get clearcut, due to a new bill. I’m sure this is part of that awkward “consensus” thing I was talking about for so long. As long as we reach a consensus, I guess I just have to grab some popcorn and watch it all unfold, pointing out all the plot fails.

  2. > Does anyone know where the “10-15 square mile clearcut” came from?

    This may be silly, but it’s accurate. The figure is just an acreage conversion from the proposed CEs in the Westerman and Thune bills. HR 2936 includes a CE for up to 10,000 acres of logging for purposes including ESH, salvage, or timber production. (30,000 if the project is developed collaboratively.) The CEs are available even in IRAs.

    Describing the legislation as allowing 15-acre clearcuts is a little unfair, because acres treated are unlikely to be contiguous in real life. On the other hand, because CEs could be “stacked” without cumulative impact analysis, the legislation is actually worse than that. It would effectively eliminate analysis of any site-specific impacts, period. (Related note: On relatively small Eastern forests, these CEs are even more wildly out of proportion. One project could cover several years’ to more than a decade’s worth of logging in the units in my region.)

    The only real limit to the authority is that projects must still be consistent with forest plans. That’s an important sideboard, but it doesn’t give me much comfort. Forest plans often don’t include acreage caps on activities like salvage, because those have always been expected to be relatively small (250 acres) and cumulatively insignificant. Furthermore, forest plans have some firm sideboards, but they also have broad goals and desired conditions that require delicate balancing at the project level. Which brings us to the real problem here: that the project-level NEPA analysis–public participation, development of alternatives, effects analysis, development of mitigation strategies–is where USFS balances the multiple uses. A CE for a single use subordinates the other multiple uses and leads to inefficient outcomes. If Congress wants to increase efficiency and improve outcomes of NF management, it should be giving the agency more resources to invest in the units that are doing a good job of balancing needs on our increasingly crowded forests. Instead, the pending legislation is more like an instruction to the USFS to cut corners, which will inevitably undermine support for working lands in the long term.

    I’m happy to share more info about the MANY different and related pieces of legislation floating around out there.

    • Thanks for this, Sam! Since you are following these bills, I would GREATLY appreciate a round up and and any insights you have, including what you think are the best parts and the worst parts and why. We could actually write our Congressfolk with our preferred ideas and I think that would be helpful.

      Just a few thoughts..
      (1) As I’m sure you’ve also seen in your career, different folks do different levels of public involvement (scoping) and analysis for CE’s. They also have to analyze to make sure that there are no extraordinary circumstances. I looked around and found this example of the Greens Peak Farm Bill CE. http://a123.g.akamai.net/7/123/11558/abc123/forestservic.download.akamai.com/11558/www/nepa/105229_FSPLT3_3913515.pdf. It has a lot of information and design criteria. It seems to me that if you’re legislating a CE, you could legislate key things that you want in it. It would be interesting to see what those things would be among a group of interested parties, including folks like Birzell.

      (2) Thinking of the small timber harvest CE, the Farm Bill CE and the energy CE’s (the former administratively designated, the latter legislative) it is hard for me to see that they make the work less “efficient.” CEQ would argue that EA’s can be short (and focused on the FONSI) which, in some cases, may not look that much different from the CE documentation in this example.

      It might be interesting for folks on the blog to each find some CE documentation of fuels treatment projects in their area and we could look at the variance in documentation and get some real world examples. I’ll start a tab up at the top of the main page and you can post them under comments.

  3. The text of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017 does not mention anything about clearcuts, only funding mechanisms.

    The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 includes this:

    (2) LARGER AREAS AUTHORIZED.—A forest management activity covered by the categorical exclusion established under subsection (a) may contain treatment units exceeding a total of 10,000 acres but not more than a total of 30,000 acres if the forest management activity— (A) is developed through a collaborative 8 process; (B) is proposed by a resource advisory committee; or (C) is covered by a community wildfire protection plan.

    But a treatment unit is an area within which treatments of various sizes may take place, not necessarily on all acres in the unit.

    It is laughable that anyone thinks the USFS is about to plan for 10,000-acre clearcuts, and sad that a Wilderness Society spokesperson implies that the bill would, or intends, to allow them. (“We don’t need 10,000-acre clear cuts in the back country to solve this.”) At least they didn’t claim that 30,000-acre clearcuts are on the drawing board.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *