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Forestry Bill In Congress Fires Up Debate

As fire season heats up in Oregon and across the West, debates over logging and forestry are staying hot in Congress. The House just passed HR 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, and Congressman Peter DeFazio is one of the Democrats who voted in favor of the bill.

HR 2647 deals with forest management, logging, firefighting and other issues on federal public lands. In his floor speech, DeFazio said he didn’t see the bill as “perfect,” but he tells EW that “you can choose between doing nothing and moving forward with something that has some good provisions and some that are not good.”

The provisions DeFazio takes issue with include categorical exclusions on salvage logging projects up to 5,000 acres and making it harder for people with a legitimate grievance against a federal land agency to sue, by forcing them to put up a bond covering some of the government’s litigation costs. 

DeFazio says if the legislation progresses he will work with the Senate to change some of these aspects of the bill.

He says this bill would end “fire borrowing,” something he has long sought to stop. Fire borrowing means that every year, after federal land managers run out of congressionally approved money to fight fires, they dip into funds for things like road maintenance, recreation and trails, resulting in hikes on trails that look like “pick-up sticks” and the cancelation of forestry projects.

Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics says, citing DeFazio’s floor speech, “Peter says he voted for this horrible bill because ‘our national forests are burning up at an alarming rate.’” But, according to Stahl, that’s “wrong, wrong, wrong. National forests are burning at a much-reduced rate this year.”

The bill would allow the federal government to treat wildfires similarly to other natural disasters, like hurricanes, and it would permit agencies to request emergency money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency when their fire budget is depleted.

Stahl continues: “Making the Forest Service unaccountable to the American people, as this bill would do, won’t reduce wildfires. And giving the Forest Service another blank check to waste money fighting fires ineffectively will mean less money for thinning and the things Peter would like to see done in the woods. This was not Peter’s finest hour.”

Also, the bill would specifically affect Oregon’s federal forests in that it calls for the Bureau of Land Management to conduct further studies on a proposed management plan for Western Oregon’s federal O&C lands. DeFazio says HR 2647 shows a “glimmer of hope on the House side” as it is more measured than previous forestry policy bills in recent years.