Bill to Force Logging Public Forests After Fires Introduced

WASHINGTON, DC, November 3, 2005 (ENS) - Nearly 100 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have sponsored legislation that they say would expedite the cleanup and restoration of federal forests after catastrophic events such as wildfires, hurricanes and windstorms.

Republican Congressmen Greg Walden of Oregon and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, with Democrats Brian Baird of Washington and Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota are the principal authors of the measure.

Walden said the “Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act,” HR 4200 comes after nearly two years of hearings by the Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee of the House Resources Committee that focused on problems plaguing the nation’s forests after catastrophic events.


Congressman Greg Walden represents 20 counties in southern, central and eastern Oregon. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
“Today in America’s forests, it can take three years for the federal government to cut a burned, dead tree after a fire. And by the time the decision is finally made, the trees have often rotted, become bug infested or lost most of their value," said Walden, chairman of the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.

"The Government Accountability Office reports that upwards of a million acres of forestland is in need of replanting. We can, and should, do better that,” he said.

Walden said the “Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act,” HR 4200 is modeled after the Bush administration's Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

Forest conservationists object that the "Healthy Forest" act allows the logging of large trees deep in the forest under the guise of protecting communities from wildfires, and they object to this new bill as well.

Lisa Dix, National Forest Program Director with the American Lands Alliance, says the bill "sweeps aside public forest protections" and "eliminates meaningful environmental review and cuts the public out of decisions that would harm America’s public forests."


Fires charred 1.4 million acres of the greater Yellowstone area during the summer of 1988. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
"The Walden logging bill promotes a false assumption that something must be done after normal, natural disturbances on national forests," said Dix. "However, according to the best available science, there is no ecological emergency to log forests after normal, natural events. As the 1988 Yellowstone fires taught us, forest recovery is more effective when log trucks and bulldozers are kept out of the picture, today Yellowstone is thriving."

Walden articulated his position October 10 in a speech at the annual conference of the Oregon Forest Industries Council. “Here in the West we think of fire first and foremost, but forests across America are impacted not only by wildfire, but also by ice, bug infestation and – as we learned all too well this summer – hurricanes. When Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast destroying lives and cities, the storm also wreaked havoc on forestlands in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi,” he said.

Five million acres along the Gulf Coast containing nearly 20 billion board feet of timber were impacted by Katrina’s 140 mile per hour winds. This timber, which could have built roughly 800,000 homes and made 25 million tons of paper, was valued at approximately $5 billion, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The initial assessment indicates that the damage to the timber is spread across five million acres of lightly to heavily damaged forestland - both public and private - in the three states. The majority of the forestland affected is under private ownership.

Forest inventories indicate one-third of the timber damaged is concentrated in eight counties of southern Mississippi. Nearly 90 percent of all forestland damaged is within 60 miles of the coast and predominantly in Mississippi.

"The extraordinary scale of the hurricane's impacts will require solid coordination at federal, state and community levels to restore these forested lands," said Southern Group of State Foresters Chair Leah MacSwords.

Nearly 60 percent of the damage occurred to softwoods such as pines, with the remainder of the damage occurring to hardwoods. The damaged acres may require additional treatment to reduce the risk of fires posed by downed trees and limbs, the Forest Service said.


Large swaths of forest have been decimated by Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Bob McMillan courtesy FEMA)
“The economic loss hits not only families, but also public institutions as well. Mississippi, for example, has land set aside to provide revenue for public schools. Most of that land was planted with timber that has now been destroyed, dramatically impacting future public school funding. Additionally, property tax receipts – Mississippi’s other main mechanism for school funding – will decline due to diminished value of land and property,” said Walden.

"The ravaged forests pose immediate environmental risks to species, habitat and the quality of water and air throughout the region," he said.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said in testimony submitted to the Subcommittee, “One of the most important recovery challenges is the need to begin removing dead and downed trees from the forests as quickly as possible. We are concerned about the amount of new fuel now on the forest floor…Greater fuel loading will increase the intensity of a wildfire, causing it to burn hotter and making it more difficult to control.”

But a new report released Tuesday by the American Lands Alliance makes the case that logging after fires in national forests threatens clean water, fish and wildlife, and would not protect communities at risk from wildfires.

"After the Fires: Do No Harm in America's Forests, A Report on the Impacts of Logging on Forest Recovery" summarizes the scientific literature to date on the ecological impacts of post-fire logging on America's forests, and the drain on American taxpayers and future generations.

Commissioner Peter Sorenson of Lane County, Oregon says the urgency is to fund community protection, and legislating rushed logging after fires is a misplaced priority.

"Local communities are working together to solve problems and find agreements to protect themselves from wildfires, even so they are not getting the help they need from Congress or the administration," he said “Instead of offering solutions based on collaboration that is shown to be working, they weaken environmental laws on controversial projects and further cut the public out."

But Washington Congressman Baird, a co-sponsor, calls it "a responsible, commonsense bill."

"People use wood – to build homes, to make paper – and that wood needs to come from somewhere. We can use wood from trees that are dead or dying, or from trees that are alive and healthy," Baird says.

"We can responsibly harvest wood here at home, abiding by environmental protections and creating jobs, or we can get our wood from clear cuts in equatorial rainforests where the environment is far more fragile and environmental protection and labor laws are far weaker or even nonexistent," Congressman Baird said.

"This bill will enable us to utilize dead timber instead of letting it go to waste and to responsibly restore the health and diversity of our forests after a catastrophic event like a fire or hurricane."

But opponents of the bill say that in practice post-fire restoration is not truly restorative. Director of the Native Forest Network Matthew Koehler says that while using buzz-words such as forest restoration and fuel reduction, the Bitterroot National Forest post-fire logging project in Montana was originally touted by the Forest Service and logging industry as a model approach to post-fire restoration and community protection following the 2000 wildfires.

"However, actual implementation of the 'recovery' plan has been plagued by broken promises and a complete lack of accountability. As part of this 'recovery' plan, the largest legacy trees have systematically been cut down up to 10 miles from the nearest community on over 18 square miles of the forest," claims Koehler.

"Meanwhile," he said, "three years into this project, only 25 percent of the promised watershed and road restoration work has been completed and $16 million in federal funds to pay for this promised work have been spent elsewhere."