The two sides of the forest wars of the 1980s are facing off over a House bill that would dramatically increase logging on national forests.
Lawsuits over clearcutting, old-growth forests and endangered species like the northern spotted owl cut the Forest Service’s timber harvest from a high of 9 billion board feet nationally to an average of 2.5 billion board feet over the past five years.
The Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act would require the Forest Service to harvest 6 billion board feet annually. The bill also includes Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador’s Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, which would create pilot projects to turn over about 1 percent of Idaho’s 20 million acres of national forests to the state and counties to manage as a trust to benefit rural counties.
The House is expected to vote on the bill Friday.
House Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican, authored the bill that requires the Forest Service to increase the harvest on its 193 million acres of land and give 25 percent of the receipts to the counties where the timber is cut. The bill also would exempt timber sales from the National Environmental Policy Act and shield them from lawsuits under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the bill would reduce costs to the federal government by $269 million annually. But documents its staff used to make that estimate, obtained by the Idaho Statesman, showed it would mandate a harvest of 220 million board feet of timber from the Clearwater National Forest, which currently cuts 22 million board feet, to generate the revenues.
The Panhandle Forest would have the biggest harvest in the nation, mandated to cut 272 million bf exceeding the Willamette in Oregon, which would have to cut 259 million board feet. The Nez Perce Forest would cut 105 million board feet and the Kootenai Forest 145 million board feet. None of the southern Idaho forests, which are far drier, would exceed 30 million.
Labrador said he expects the Senate to come up with harvest levels that are “more reasonable.”
Supporters say the bill would lift up the economies of rural communities across the West and help local governments pay for schools and roads.
“The time has come to put our people and our land back to work,” Labrador said.
Environmental groups label the Hastings’ bill “logging without laws” and say it would force the agency to go back to widespread clearcutting that causes environmental damage. It also would mandate timber harvests in roadless areas, river corridors and recreation areas where harvest only is allowed for restoration and fuel reduction.
That’s why the Obama administration threatened this week to veto the bill. The only part of the bill that has much bipartisan support is a section, authored by Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, to turn over management of Bureau of Land Management timber lands to Oregon for the benefit of timber-dependent counties.
Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has his own bill to address the Oregon BLM timber issue. He has not commented on the Hastings’ bill.
Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt, of Kooskia, a supporter of the bill, said if Wyden wants a bill to resolve Oregon’s issue he’s going to have to address the larger issue of national forest logging.
“I think that’s how we can pass a bill that can get to the president’s desk,” Labrador said.
Hastings’ bill has wide support from timber industry and other resource groups like the National Cattleman’s Association and the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized recreation group. The National Association of Counties also supports the bill.
Gordon Cruickshank, a Valley County commissioner from Cascade, is one of the main voices supporting Labrador’s Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act.
It would establish a trust for managing up to 200,000 acres of federal land, with proceeds going to the federal government after management costs and money for 35 counties. Idaho counties now get $28.5 million annually for schools, roads and other projects under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. The additional amount would make up revenues counties lost as timber harvests dropped in the 1980s.
The Senate Thursday voted to extend the Secure School payments for another year. Hastings’ bill also would extend the Secure School payments.
Cruickshank supports the entire Hastings’ bill.
“It gets us back to doing something,” he said. “If we look at this responsibly, I think we can do it correctly.”
Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst for the Wilderness Society, said his group supports sustainable timber production, restoration programs and works in collaborative groups across the West. But, he said, “We are very concerned about the House approving this horrendous bill.”