Westerman Again Pushes Bill to Ease Forestry Restrictions

May 10, 2019
In The News

For the third straight session of Congress, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman has introduced legislation that would make it harder for environmentalists to delay or derail federal forest management plans.

The measure would also speed up the regulatory process, while also removing some of the statutory hurdles that have existed for decades.

The Republican from Hot Springs said the bill, if approved, would help prevent huge wildfires, better utilize the nation's natural resources and lessen the environmental damage caused by major conflagrations.

Opponents say Westerman's proposals are counterproductive and unlikely to pass.

Westerman, successfully guided similar legislation through the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives in 2015 and 2017, only to see it die in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

Now, with Democrats in power on the House side, he is trying again, arguing that the current system puts lives and property at risk.

Westerman's bill was filed Wednesday, exactly six months after one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history. The blaze, 100 miles north of Sacramento, reduced two towns to rubble and left thousands of people homeless.

"If you look back at the destruction of the homes in the Camp Fire, you're talking about billions of dollars of destruction of residential homes. You're looking at nearly 100 lives that were lost in that fire. Then you start looking at the loss of property with automobiles and businesses and the numbers are staggering," Westerman said during a phone call with reporters.

Proper forest management practices, Westerman said, can lessen fire risks and improve forest health.

Under the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2019, development or revision of a forest plan would no longer be classified as "a major federal action for purposes of section 102 of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969."

The reclassification would allow forest plans to bypass the often-arduous Section 7 consultation process between the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If Westerman's bill becomes law, environmentalist would no longer be able to recoup legal fees when they challenge a forest plan in court -- even if they win the suit.

Salvage plans produced in the wake of a "catastrophic event," would also be fast-tracked. Preliminary injunctions and restraining orders would no longer be available. Deadlines would be moved up.

House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said Congress last year "took meaningful action to provide more reliable funding and resources to our land management agencies," but opted not to adopt many of Westerman's proposals.

"The controversial provisions of Rep. Westerman's bill were not included because they would do little to improve forest health or community safety. His proposal is a special interest wish list that eliminates environmental protections and suppresses the public's ability to have a say in how our lands are managed," Grijalva said in a written statement. "Natural Resources Committee Democrats are focused on providing communities and land management agencies the tools they need to plan better and more sustainably manage our lands. The Westerman bill is not part of our agenda."

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Westerman said that his original bill had included provisions to increase funding for wildfire suppression and portrayed the new funding system as a victory. He also highlighted language in last year's Farm Bill which granted a categorical exclusion for certain projects covering 3,000 acres or less. Similar language had been included in the 2014 Farm Bill as well.

Republicans have turned to Westerman for leadership on forest policy since his election to Congress in 2014; he holds a graduate degree in forestry from Yale University.

During a conference call with reporters, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said Westerman's legislation is sorely needed.

"What the Westerman bill is trying to do is give the Forest Service what they say they need to be able to fully manage the land in the way they know it ought to be managed," said Bishop, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee.

After the Camp Fire, President Donald Trump toured the disaster area, emphasizing the need to "take care of the floors, you know, the floors of the forests." In Finland, "they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don't have any problem. And when it is, it's a very small problem," the president said.

Asked whether Trump is right about the importance of forest raking, Westerman said the president is correct.

"If you want to get wonky on the forestry side, that is an acceptable term to use. You don't hear it very often, but it's basically a term that means 'cleaning up the forest floor,'" the lawmaker said.

Thinning the forests and utilizing controlled burns lower the risk of catastrophic wildfires, he said. "That is, in essence, what raking the floor is."