Tim­ber bill will help state, Wester­man says

Eas­ing log­ging re­stric­tions wor­ries crit­ics

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - DOUG THOMP­SON

A bill be­fore Congress would give Arkansas a greater share of the U.S. For­est Ser­vice’s bud­get, ac­cord­ing to its spon­sor. Op­po­nents ar­gue it would also ease re­stric­tions on clear-cut­ting those forests.

House Bill 2936 of 2017 would al­low na­tional forests in Arkansas to re­spond more quickly and ef­fec­tively to dam­age from emer­gen­cies such as ice storms, in­sect in­fes­ta­tions, fires or any other dis­as­ter, said Rep. Bruce Wester­man, R-Ark., and the bill’s spon­sor.

“The num­ber one ex­pense of the U.S. For­est Ser­vice is fight­ing fires, and the num­ber two is lit­i­ga­tion,” Wester­man said Thurs­day in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

Most of the fires are in West­ern states. His bill would cut costs of both fire­fight­ing and le­gal chal­lenges to cleanups that spur some of those fires, he said. That would al­low the ser­vice’s re­sources to go else­where, like projects in Arkansas, he said.

The bill also would end ad­min­is­tra­tive ap­peals to

the For­est Ser­vice for emer­gency cleanup by log­ging, said Tom McKin­ney of West Fork, con­ser­va­tion chair­man of the Arkansas chap­ter of the Sierra Club. It would al­low log­ging on 10,000 acres, or more than 15 square miles, with­out an ad­min­is­tra­tive ap­peal for even a small prob­lem, be­cause it de­fines an emer­gency too broadly, he said. An area three times that large can be logged with­out re­view un­der some cir­cum­stances, he said.

Those who ob­ject to a project can still ap­peal in fed­eral court, but Wester­man’s bill would pro­hibit them from re­cov­er­ing at­tor­neys fees. That will make court ap­peals a prac­ti­cal im­pos­si­bil­ity, McKin­ney said.

In sum, McKin­ney said, the bill would let the For­est Ser­vice do al­most any­thing it wanted since al­most any part of any for­est could have wind dam­age or an­other such prob­lem to “fix.”

Wester­man, who rep­re­sents the state’s 4th Con­gres­sional District and is from Hot Springs, passed a sim­i­lar bill through the House in 2015. The new bill passed the House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee on June 27, and he ex­pects pas­sage through the chamber this year also.

“The hang-up’s al­ways been in the Se­nate,” he said.

To mol­lify Se­nate op­po­si­tion, Wester­man dropped a re­quire­ment in the lat­est ver­sion that those su­ing to stop an emer­gency cleanup project post a bond.

Wester­man noted the bill al­lows ar­bi­tra­tion. McKin­ney said it was very re­stric­tive and the project would con­tinue dur­ing the ar­bi­tra­tion.

Wild­fires, mainly in West­ern states, de­stroy or dam­age a yearly av­er­age of 6.2 mil­lion acres, an area of more than 9,500 square miles, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the For­est Ser­vice and the fed­eral Bureau of Land Man­age­ment. Fight­ing such fires ac­counts for more than half of the For­est Ser­vice’s bud­get, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral fig­ures.

Wester­man’s 86-page bill would al­low the For­est Ser­vice and the bureau to ex­clude projects from an ad­min­is­tra­tive ap­peal if the project is de­signed to elim­i­nate an in­sect in­fes­ta­tion or disease out­break, re­duce over­growth that cre­ates a fire haz­ard, clear an area blighted by a fire or a dam­ag­ing nat­u­ral event like an ice storm or wind dam­age.

The mea­sures within the bill would ap­ply to all states with no pro­vi­sion for lo­cal dif­fer­ences, McKin­ney said.

“The Ozark-St. Fran­cis and the Oua­chita na­tional forests com­bined would fit com­fort­ably in one for­est district in­side the na­tional for­est of a West­ern state,” he said.

The ones he named are the na­tional forests within Arkansas. De­spite the dif­fer­ence in size, Arkansas forests would still fall within the 10,000-acre rule for a log­ging a prob­lem area no mat­ter if far fewer acres were af­fected, he said.

“They can make it mean what they want it to mean,” McKin­ney said.

Be­sides dif­fer­ences of scale be­tween states, there are dif­fer­ences on the ground, he said. The bill makes too many ex­cep­tions to rules that pro­tect dif­fer­ent habi­tats and short-cir­cuits the ad­min­is­tra­tive ap­peal that could raise con­cerns, he said.

“There are hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent types of habi­tats, but this is one sys­tem,” he said. “It doesn’t mat­ter if the part of the for­est af­fected is at sea level or 10,000 feet above sea level, if it is a small part of a West­ern state or a huge part of a South­ern state, or if its on a hill­side or flat­land.”

Lo­cal for­est ser­vice ad­min­is­tra­tors are not go­ing to ig­nore lo­cal con­di­tions, Wester­man said. The pur­pose of the bill is to al­low flex­i­bil­ity, not dic­tate a one-size-fits-all so­lu­tion, he said.

The ex­ist­ing one-size-fit­sall so­lu­tion that has been im­posed on fed­eral lands by friv­o­lous law­suits is to do noth­ing, Wester­man said.

“The de­ci­sion to make no de­ci­sion is still a de­ci­sion, and it is one that is caus­ing all kinds of grief.”

Fallen tim­ber from a wind­storm, for ex­am­ple, im­pedes fire­fight­ing ef­forts and pro­vides dried-out fuel for fu­ture wild­fires, Wester­man said.

Three foresters in sep­a­rate in­ter­views raised that same point.

State Forester Joe Fox said in a tele­phone in­ter­view the bill would have clear ben­e­fits to Arkansas. He said the bill would make sal­vage oper­a­tions in the state’s na­tional forests much more cost-ef­fec­tive.

Max Braswell, ex­ec­u­tive vice president of the Arkansas Forestry As­so­ci­a­tion, and state Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheri­dan, a for­mer forester for In­ter­na­tional Paper, and Fox all men­tioned “blue stain,” a con­di­tion from a fun­gus car­ried by in­sects, which mars the ap­pear­ance of tim­ber taken from fallen trees.

Get­ting to fallen tim­ber be­fore blue stain sets in makes the dif­fer­ence be­tween get­ting a good bid for a sal­vage op­er­a­tion and hav­ing to pay some­body to go in and clean it up, Fox said. The longer tim­ber lies on the ground or the worse an in­fes­ta­tion gets, the more ex­pen­sive the prob­lem be­comes to fix, he said.

Bragg agreed, say­ing there are the ad­di­tional prob­lems. Dam­aged trees are bet­ter fuel for fires, and fallen trees are a haz­ard to fire­fight­ers.

Arkansas has an­other fac­tor to con­sider that this bill would ad­dress, Braswell said. Forests here are grow­ing dense.

“In the late 1970s, we had 17.8 mil­lion acres of for­est. Now we have 19 mil­lion,” Braswell said. The growth within that acreage is becoming thicker, too, he said. “We’re grow­ing at a rate that is 1.7 times more than we are tak­ing out,” he said.

“If we don’t man­age this, Mother Na­ture will,” Braswell said. Fires and in­sects are na­ture’s tools, he said. “There’s a rea­son Sun in­dus­tries is mov­ing here,” he said, re­fer­ring to Sun Paper Co., a Chi­nese firm which re­cently an­nounced it will in­vest more than $1 bil­lion for a bio-prod­ucts mill that will cre­ate 250 jobs.

Adding mass is a prob­lem other states wished they had, Wester­man said.

“The sim­ple fact is that forests are dy­ing faster in Cal­i­for­nia than they are grow­ing,” he said. “The same thing is true in Colorado. Those states have a net neg­a­tive amount of for­est ev­ery year.”

Many of the in­sect in­fes­ta­tions, dry con­di­tions fire haz­ards and loss of for­est habi­tat this bill would ad­dress are caused by global warm­ing and not man­age­ment prac­tices, McKin­ney said. For ex­am­ple, milder win­ters lead di­rectly to a much higher sur­vival rate for in­sects.

Wester­man ac­knowl­edged there was merit in that ar­gu­ment.

“They blame a lot of this on cli­mate change, and I’ll give them that,” Wester­man said. But the prob­lems such as over­grown ar­eas and in­sect out­breaks re­quire a direct, more im­me­di­ate re­sponse, he said.

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