WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on Thursday advanced a measure aimed at offering local jurisdictions more control over managing wildfires on federal lands.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act passed a packed House Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support.
The measure would allow the federal government to defer to local working groups some management of areas of national forests that would be designated high-risk for wildfires. The Department of Agriculture appoints members to state-based Resource Advisory Councils, including representation from industry, environmental and local governments. The measure would reduce the minimum number of required members to six.
The bill also would make it more difficult for the public to challenge forest-management plans in court by requiring litigants to post bond if they want to advance a lawsuit.
Some of the provisions of the measure incorporate ideas from a proposal by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.
“Addressing the critical condition of forests on public federal lands remains a top priority for all of us in the Western U.S.,” Tipton said in a statement after the vote. “The wildfire hazards in these areas have been compounded by decades of drastically insufficient federal management and present an environmental crisis that threatens communities, habitats, water supplies and infrastructure.”
But Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, had concerns with limiting the public’s ability to challenge management plans. He offered an amendment that would have removed the bonding requirement. That proposal died.
“I always think that in managing our federal lands it’s really important to consult all of our residents and local stakeholders, and this bill provides too many ways around that,” Polis said.
The bill’s supporters argue that lawsuits delay forest-management projects that involve removing trees to mitigate fire danger.
Forestry industry groups were eager to see the bill through committee.
“Our position is that once the Forest Service determines that land is suited for timber production, it shouldn’t have to go back to NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act),” said Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, whose clients include sawmills.
But environmental interests are concerned about limiting public input to the advisory councils and are worried the bill would lead to widespread forest clearing.
“It’s a very nefarious thing to do,” said Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations for The Wilderness Society. “By limiting the number of people on these committees, it’s removing the number of people who would stand in the way of moving ahead with logging projects.”
Mariam Baksh is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern with The Cortez Journal.