Forest reform bill passes House

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden speaks during a Hermiston Rotary luncheon in September in Hermiston.

For the fifth time in as many years, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would expedite certain forest thinning projects to lower the risk of destructive wildfires across the country.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon) hailed it as a big day for the Northwest during a conference call with reporters, saying the bill not only solves the issue of “fire borrowing” but gives agencies more leeway to thin overcrowded and diseased forests.

Fire borrowing refers to the longstanding practice of taking money away from forest management programs to pay for fire suppression, making it even more difficult for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to get ahead of the problem. Instead, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 would create a new account under the Disaster Relief Fund — administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to cover firefighting costs.

“That way, work can continue on the ground that’s so necessary,” Walden said.

The federal government spent a record $2.5 billion fighting wildfires in 2017, including 678,000 acres burned in Oregon. By eliminating fire borrowing, Walden said more work can be done to lower the size and intensity of fires moving forward.

The bill itself features several provisions to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration, Walden said. For example, thinning projects as large as 10,000 acres could qualify for a categorical exclusion, fast-tracking environmental review. That limit increases to 30,000 acres if the project is developed by a collaborative group.

The bill also requires the Secretary of Agriculture to create a pilot program for resolving lawsuits against forest management projects through arbitration, as opposed to going to court. Plaintiffs would not be able to recover their attorney fees in such cases under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

Finally in Eastern Oregon, the bill lifts the prohibition on logging trees more than 21 inches in diameter, a rule that county officials argue “has no basis in science.”

Opponents of the Resilient Federal Forests Act criticize the bill as a way to maximize the interests of logging companies while severely undermining environmental review laws. Andy Kerr, former conservation director for Oregon Wild, has written the bill would essentially gut the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and Equal Access to Justice Act to advance the interests of logging.

Walden said the proposal now heads to the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote out of the House. Unlike the previous four years, he said the administration in Washington, D.C. seems more receptive to advancing the bill to the President’s desk.

“I think we have a good opportunity this time,” he said. “This time, we’re not fighting the head winds of an administration that wasn’t supportive. That changes the dynamics.”

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