Debate heats up as forest bill goes to Senate
By LEISEL KOBER
The debate on how to achieve healthy national forests is continuing as the Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2015 is now moving to the U.S. Senate.
“It is not a protection of the forests but (the act) does have good qualities,” said David Sublette, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter wildlife and wilderness committee. “What (Congressman Glenn Thompson) has done is excellent.”
Thompson, who represents Pennsylvania’s sprawling 5th District in the U.S. House that includes the Allegheny National Forest, was a co-sponsor of the Resilient Forest Act. The bill was approved in the House last week by a 262-167 vote.
The proposed act would increase forest management and flexibility to increase timber harvesting in order to prevent wildfires and infestations and to insure a healthy woods.
However, Bill Belitskus, board president of the Allegheny Defense Project, says the bill is nothing more than an excuse to increase logging, one that uses fire and insects “as an excuse.”
Sublette is on the Sierra Club’s national wildlife and wilderness team whose main goals are to hold up the integrity of the 1964 Wilderness Act. He said he is looking at the problem nationally instead of just in local areas like the Allegheny Forest.
Thompson said it is his responsibility to also look at all national forests, not just the Allegheny, to insure that all forests are healthy.
“It does not compromise the environment; it does help the environment,” Thompson said. “This bill is about healthy forests and healthy watershed.”
A summary and analysis of the bill, done by Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society and provided by the Allegheny Defense Project, brings up the problems environmentalists see with the bill.
“The bill places no size limit on the amount of salvage logging that could be done under this expedited process, despite strong scientific evidence that post-fire salvage logging can have extremely harmful impacts on water quality and wildlife,” according to Anderson’s analysis.
“We don’t have financial interests; we’re not doing it to make money,” Belitskus said.
Sublette explained the national Sierra Club has an End to Commercial Logging Policy which, as the name explains, advocates an end to logging and other timber harvesting activities.
The Sierra’s policy conflicts with the forest bill due to the act’s provisions stating an increase in timber harvesting and logging to prevent future wildfires and infestation in all national forests.
The Allegheny Forest doesn’t have a fire problem and the last naturally caused fire in the forest occurred in 1993, according to the Marienville Ranger office. The forest is sometimes nicknamed the “Asbestos Forest” because of the amount of moisture and rainfall.
However, Thompson said the Allegheny Forest will still benefit from the bill.
“There is a considerable amount of money taken out of the budget of the Allegheny National Forest to fight fires in the West. If we can reduce the fires in the west the Allegheny can have more funds,” Thompson said.
“The bill could exacerbate the Forest Service’s long-term funding problem by adding costs covered by future disaster funding (on top of regular appropriated funds) to the 10-year average amount that must be appropriated in order for the president to declare a major disaster for wildfire,” according to Anderson’s analysis. “Forest Service appropriations for fire suppression would likely continue to spiral upward, consuming an ever-growing proportion of the agency’s budget and leaving less appropriated funding for all other national forest management activities.”
Thompson said the act is designed to be a collaborative effort. He said the categorical exclusions will get projects going faster in any community and will encourage the communities to give their input.
“The environmental groups are welcome to become a part of it, to address the need in the forests,” Thompson said.
“I think a little flexibility is necessary,” Sublette said.
Thompson said the Allegheny Forest has a need to cut down old overgrown forests to stop more invasive species.
“Invasive species are a reality we have to deal with,” Thompson said.
Belitskus said this will not solve any problems with fire or invasive species and there is science from across the nation to support that.
“The only way you can protect a forest is wilderness designation,” Sublette said. “Someday it would be nice to wilderness designate areas in the Allegheny National Forest.”
President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget released a statement last week detailing administration opposition to the bill.
“H.R. 2647 falls short of fixing the fire budget problem and contains other provisions that will undermine collaborative forest restoration, environmental safeguards, and public participation across the National Forest System and public lands,” the statement said.
If the bill passes in the Senate, environmentalists and legislators will be waiting to see if Obama signs or vetoes the legislation.
Republished with permission from The Derrick.
First Published Monday, July 13, 2015