For the past several years, we’ve defended our public lands from radical voices promoting the seizure and privatization of our public lands. Since that effort has been unsuccessful to date, our public lands are now under threat from a more subtle assault.
What’s Being Proposed?
Bills in both the House and Senate have been introduced that would severely undermine existing legal protections for national forests and wildlife and limit the voices of Americans who care about our public lands.
Instead of handing our lands to commercial interests by selling them, these bills would technically keep the lands in public ownership. But they would make sweeping changes to reduce public participation and automatically prioritize extraction over other uses such as maintaining wildlife habitat.
Of immediate concern, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) introduced H.R. 2936, the “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017.” The 86-page bill has 14 cosponsors, including Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID). Among other things, the bill would do the following:
- Silence public involvement in the management of our national forests, at both the project level and at the forest plan level.
- Slash existing protections for old-growth forests and fast track commercial timber sales on projects up to 30,000 acres in size.
- Disregard the Idaho Roadless Rule and encourage new road construction (even though the U.S. Forest Service has a $12 billion backlog of maintenance on existing roads).
- Exempt logging and salvage projects from requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
- Limit judicial review and the ability to recover attorney’s fees, even when the government’s decision is “substantially unjustified.”
- Repeal protections for the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon.
How Would This Bill Affect Idaho?
For decades, the timber wars pitted conservation and wildlife advocates against timber and logging interests. As a result of shared recognition that neither side was winning, a truce was declared and diverse stakeholders sat down, talked about why national forests were important to them and worked together to find resolution to longstanding conflicts. Since taking hold more than a decade ago, collaborative groups have sprung up across Idaho and former adversaries are working together to advance integrated forest management projects and land protection efforts. Projects such as the Mill Creek Council Mountain Project.
These collaboratives are seeing success, including with projects for restoration of fish and wildlife habitat, reduction of hazardous fuels near communities, improved recreation opportunities, and local economic benefits.
A similar collaborative effort helped achieve a large degree of consensus with 2008 Idaho Roadless Rule, led by then-Governor Jim Risch. Because of the broad-based support of the rule, it has survived legal challenges and provides increased certainty for both conservation and forest products interests.
The bill proposed by Rep. Westerman threatens to undermine the gains made by collaborative groups in Idaho. The bill would tilt the playing field heavily towards industrial development, threaten critical habitat for endangered species and cut the public out of the decision making process.
In addition, the ability to seek redress in our courts is a fundamental tenet of our democratic society. By effectively blocking the courthouse doors, Congress would be undermining the ability of citizens to ensure compliance with our nation’s bedrock environmental laws.
What’s the Alternative?
Instead, Congress should be working to protect funding for road and trail maintenance, boost funding for fire risk reduction efforts around communities, expand the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and fix the wildfire budget. Otherwise, Congress will be missing the forest for the trees … and if this bill gets through, we’ll be missing the trees too!