tree fire

California ranchers and agencies are working to combat wildfires in the state. Pictured here, the August Complex Fire in the Mendocino National Forest. The fires within the complex ignited Aug. 16 and as of Nov. 4 had burned over 1 million acres and was 93 percent contained.

As the West enters another year of a megadrought, the potential for forest fires is not “if” but “when” and “where” they will occur. Forest fires are taking a toll on the environment, public health, communities and the livelihoods of those dependent on the forests. In answer to the problem of forest health on the 193 million acres of land the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages, the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) published the “Fix America’s Forests” report.

The report proposes eight recommendations of several federal-state and public-private partnerships that have “demonstrated the ability to increase and expedite needed restoration while promoting collaboration among diverse interests.”

The report includes the following recommendation:

  • Make categorical exclusions easier to apply for and expand acreage limits. USFS should expand acreage limits on categorical exclusions for forest restoration projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and clarify the process.
  • Avoid analysis paralysis by limiting Endangered Species Act (ESA) consultations to projects with on-the-ground effects on protected species. Congress could adopt the 10th Circuit Court’s approach in which consultation is not required for a forest-wide plan nor for similar decisions with no immediate on-the-ground impacts to imperiled wildlife. Individual projects would still be subject to complete consultation requirements.
  • Make litigation less disruptive by requiring lawsuits to be filed quickly and clarify how fire risks and forest health should affect injunction decisions. Lawsuits challenging restoration projects should be filed soon after a project is approved and should be limited for restoration projects in high fire risk areas bordering populated regions, where moving forward would be objectively reasonable.
  • Allow prescribed burns to be excluded from state emissions calculations. Congress should pass the National Prescribed Fire Act introduced in 2020 by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) or a similar bill requiring state air quality agencies to use current laws and regulations to allow larger controlled burns and give states more flexibility in winter months to conduct controlled burns.
  • Scale up public-private partnerships by empowering USFS to enter longer-term contracts and cooperative agreements. Current stewardship agreements are for 10 years and should be amended to allow USFS to enter into longer-term contracts for forest restoration work.
  • Allow USFS to be a “good neighbor” through longer, more flexible partnerships with states, Tribes, and counties. Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) agreements would allow USFS to work with states, Tribal nations and counties to restore forests and be used more often with monies for lands within the GNA boundary.
  • Promote innovative wood markets by establishing a USFS restoration fund for long-term cost-share partnerships. Congress and USFS should work with the National Forest Foundation to create a flexible endowment fund for long-term cost-share forest restoration agreements.
  • Open timber markets for export. Removing export and substitution restrictions from federal forests would open more markets to more buyers, increasing the potential for forest restoration as there is not enough local mill capacity needed to reduce fire risks.

Presentation to caucus

Jonathan Wood, a PERC research fellow and attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, gave a briefing of the report in May to staff members of the Congressional Western Caucus in Washington, D.C. Sens. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Steve Daines (R-MT) attended the meeting and gave opening remarks.

Wood told WLJ the senators are “looking for an opportunity to educate other members of the caucus [and their staff] for coming up with and implementing actual solutions.” One of the emphases Wood told the briefing is it should not be a debate over whether we are blaming forest management versus climate change.

“Regardless of where you were or your position is, at the end of the day, if you want to solve the problem tomorrow, you have to be committed to forest restoration. If your concern is climate change, that’s going to require long-term solutions, it’s not going to help you deal with the wildfire crisis now,” Wood said.

Wood told the briefing the solution is not just putting more money towards forest restoration but requires the skills and expertise of local and state officials combined with the USFS. Wood described a unique project in Newhouse’s district where the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, a group of public and private partners, proposed allowing timber contractors to bear the costs of NEPA analysis in exchange for a contract to perform harvesting and restoration work.

The project is called the “A to Z” project because the winning bidder would incur all responsibilities for the entire project. Staff members were also interested in the GNA and how to take that model and implement it so “Tribes and local governments can also participate as equal partners and make it so that NEPA and ESA and other regulatory burdens, especially litigation, don’t create so much uncertainty that no one’s willing to come to the table.”

Wood is hoping the caucus adopts most of the report. Still, the critical aspect is the ability of the USFS to enter into partnerships with Tribal, state and local groups which are currently prohibited under appropriations rules. Additionally, NEPA needs to be improved for forest restoration projects as the process takes too much time.

Overall, Wood was encouraged with the interest in the report and the topic, and their offices taking the issue seriously.

“I’m really optimistic that we’ll continue to see solutions coming out on a bipartisan basis, because, long term, it’s in no one’s interest to allow the wildfire crisis to keep going and to get worse,” Wood said. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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