“Wildfire legislation’s NEPA provisions generate divisions”

From E&E Daily today….

“Congress risks stirring old political battles by trying to scale back environmental rules in the fight against wildfires.”

But we are not talking about the same types of forest management — thinning and fuels management, rather than clearcutting old-growth, or clearcutting at all.


Wildfire legislation’s NEPA provisions generate divisions

Congress risks stirring old political battles by trying to scale back environmental rules in the fight against wildfires, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said yesterday.

At a hearing on wildfire legislation, Merkley urged lawmakers to concentrate on giving the Forest Service more money to manage forests — not power to thin them without extensive environmental reviews.

“Why go back to the timber wars of the past when we have the solution right in front of us?” Merkley said at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on a draft bill by Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

Yesterday’s hearing showed that rollbacks of environmental reviews through so-called categorical exclusions remain the main sticking point as Congress tries to stem the rising cost of blazes and adopt a more active approach to removing potential fuel from national forests.

Barrasso has taken a position more in line with timber interests and sportsmen’s groups, proposing to make as much as 6,000 acres at a time eligible for exclusions from the National Environmental Policy Act.

They could be used to speed projects thinning forests affected by pests, diseases and what foresters consider overgrowth that risks bigger fires.

Barrasso released the “Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act” in recent days (E&E News PM, Oct. 23). He told reporters he’ll seek to combine it with legislation that provides annual emergency funding for wildfires, working with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and others.

Senators say they aim to pass wildfire legislation this year, possibly on the next hurricane relief bill in late October or early November.

Deadly wildfires in California’s Napa Valley, as well as a record fire season in Montana and Oregon, have raised the visibility of a long-brewing issue.

How much of Barrasso’s draft measure, and several other proposed bills, emerge in a final package remains to be seen. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, said the chairman’s proposal includes some bipartisan provisions, including limiting lawsuits over forest projects, but takes a more partisan approach on environmental policy.

“I am concerned about the negative implications of these proposed reforms, would be layered on top of existing, underutilized forest management authorities,” Carper said.

Witnesses at the hearing said they believe most stakeholders agree that wildfires are growing more frequent and more thinning and removal of dead trees should be part of the solution, and that wildfires should be treated as natural disasters, like hurricanes or tornadoes.

But groups still don’t completely trust each other’s motives, they said, reflected in the discord over environmental regulations.

Environmentalists believe other interests are “trying to change the rules of the game,” said Dylan Kruse, policy director for Sustainable Northwest, which opposes new categorical exclusions and other aspects of Barrasso’s bill.

“I think we all agree that what we’ve done in the past has not worked,” said Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser. “I think our end goals are all the same.”

Kruse said Congress should concentrate on wildfire funding and encourage the Forest Service to make more use of authority it already has — including categorical exclusions and stewardship contracting.

“We already have lots of tools,” Kruse said.

Merkley is pushing legislation sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the “Wildfire Disaster Funding Act,” S. 1842, which provides an emergency funding stream for wildfires but steers clear of more divisive forest management issues. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has a companion bill in the House, H.R. 2862.

Those lawmakers say they agree forest thinning that clears potential fuel and provides timber should be part of the solution, but that funding is the immediate priority.

Disagreement over climate change’s impact on wildfires also provides some political charge. A wide range of scientists say global warming influenced by humans has helped lengthen the fire season by several weeks.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) was unable to prod Miles Moretti, president of the Mule Deer Foundation in Salt Lake City, to pin blame there.

Moretti said poor forest management might be partly at fault for the longer fire season but added, “It’s not my area of expertise.”

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6 thoughts on ““Wildfire legislation’s NEPA provisions generate divisions””

  1. The Missoulian also covered this hearing.

    As Rob Chaney reported, “Although the first word of the bill is ‘wildfire,’ it focuses most of its effort on reducing oversight of federal land management.”

    Also, the E&E piece doesn’t mention Senator Steve Daines and Jon Tester’s S. 605, which would undermine the ESA by overriding the Cottonwood Law case regarding lynx.

    That Cottonwood case has been big news in Montana, and this blog’s very own Jon Haber was called in to Fact-Check much of the misinformation and outright lies being spread in Montana by Tester and Daines.

    The Cottonwood decision really focused on critical Canada Lynx habitat. The animals are on the threatened species list, and a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling says the U.S. Forest Service needs to review its current management plans to ensure it protects 12 million acres of Lynx habitat.

    If the old management plans don’t protect their habitat, the Forest Service has to update it.

    But in an interview with YPR earlier this month, Tester said the Cottonwood decision has even more far-reaching impacts.

    “Somebody could come in, and it has happened, and say, you know what? We’ve got this species that’s on the Endangered Species List that has some impacts, you need to redo that forest plan that has taken literally decades to write. And everything in that million acres of Lewis and Clark Forest stops. Everything stops. All the recreational opportunities stop, tree cuts stop, trail maintenance stops, everything stops while they redo this forest plan.” he said.

    Not quite, says Jon Haber, a former U.S. Forest Service planner.

    “The impression that that statement gives you is that it’s a do-over and it will take a long time,” Haber says. “First of all, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to change the plan at all. All it means is you have to talk to the Fish and Wildlife Service about it. And if you do need to make changes, they may not be big changes and it may not take long.”

    Haber worked on Lynx habitat, on and off, for almost twenty years. He says in most situations, everything doesn’t stop once there’s a lawsuit or a forest is listed as critical habitat for an endangered species.

    According to Haber, the new draft legislation would not only reverse the Cottonwood Decision, which focuses on lynx habitat.

    It’s also going to talk about if there’s a new species listed, that you’ll no longer have to consult on an existing forest plan,” he said.

    Finally, over a week ago the USFWS issued a new review of the biological assessment regarding the effects of the Northern Rockies Lynx Management Direction on designated Canada lynx critical habitat. In the past year, Senator Daines and Tester gave Montana citizens the impression that this biological opinion would take years and years to complete. So, given their lies and rhetoric, it’s no surprise that Senator Daines and Tester have refused to even acknowledge the existence of this document.

    • Matthew- There are at least explanation for what Tester said 1) he intentionally knew it (lied) 2) he had incomplete staff work and/or 3) it’s so complicated that only a few people including Jon Haber actually knew the correct answer. I am a pretty responsible person and know a great deal about NEPA and forest planning, but the whole ESA thing, consultation, plans and so on is its own area of expertise.

      It really shouldn’t be that complicated but ESA reform is hard to do (I first worked on it in 1995) It seems like in the era of climate change, this would be a good time to get a bipartisan group to look at it, its success and failures, and try to make sense of how it be more efficient and effective at protecting species.

  2. Authorizing CEs for fuel reduction waives important elements of public involvement, accountability, and informed decision-making.

    Categorical Exclusions (i) do not get thoroughly analyzed, (ii) do not allow public comment on an informative analysis, AND (iii) do not allow for objections from the public.

    • Let’s take a Roadside Hazard Tree CE, for example. (i) Why would we need to analyze such a project, other than an appraisal, to set bids, (and other operational limitations in common use). (ii) I’m sure that the impacted public would be warned about such work, before plans are made up. (iii) What could people object to in a Roadside Hazard Tree Project, other than to litigate it? Such projects are more of a maintenance issue than a greedy grab for timber dollars. Remember, most of the green trees cut in such a project have significant rot in the most valuable part. Such trees usually have a lot of cleanup involved, as well.

    • Hmm. could you be more specific? Let’s take this example of the process for a similar CE. What more analysis do you think is needed? https://forestpolicypub.com/fuel-treatment-ce-examples/#comment-428068
      What is needed to be “informative” about the scoping letter and the public meetings (I’m assuming they had units mapped)?
      It seems to me that your “objection” argument is related to the degree of specificity in the scoping letter.

      If they have all their units and design criteria identified, and give that and the maps at a public meeting…and in the scoping letter, (draft 1)
      and you and others want changes and they come back with another proposal (draft 2)
      and you get one last chance to make a comment…
      would that be sufficiently like an objection?

      If you could include more specifics it would help me understand your concern.

      Anyone, please feel free to find a CE (the 2014 Farm Bill CE’s are good examples) project in your neighborhood and post the links to it as a comment in the tab above “Fuel Treatment CE’s”


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