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Opposing views emerge on forestry bill

Proposal quickens damage response, but critics worry about eased restrictions

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., the bill's sponsor.

"The No. 1 expense of the U.S. Forest Service is fighting fires, and the No. 2 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 can quash some of those fires, he said. That would allow the service's resources to go elsewhere, including 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 of Hot Springs, who represents the state's 4th Congressional District, 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, or clear an area blighted by a fire or a damaging natural event such as 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 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 it's 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-fits-all 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.

Metro on 07/17/2017

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