For more than a month, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have been calling for a rollback of environmental regulations on forest-thinning projects they argue will help reduce the risk of wildfires, including the ones ravaging California.
“For too long, our forest management efforts have been thwarted by lawsuits from misguided, extreme environmentalists,” Zinke and Perdue wrote in a Sept. 4 op-ed in The Sacramento Bee. “The time has come to act without flinching in the face of threatened litigation.”
The state’s Republicans in Congress have been pressing the same agenda for years.
Congress, however, is poised to brush aside their pleas. Multiple sources on Capitol Hill and from advocacy groups affirmed that lawmakers are likely to drop most of the controversial forestry measures from the Farm Bill, the multi-year agriculture and land use law that members of Congress are trying to finalize this month.
“I see a common-sense, practical policy agenda emerging on wildfire management,” said Peter Nelson, director of federal lands at the Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group. Indeed, federal and state policymakers are increasingly acknowledging that forests in California and throughout the west have become badly overgrown, and a more proactive policy of controlled burning and forest clearing is necessary. The question is how big a part logging should play in the solution, and how rigorous the review process should be for tree thinning proposals.
Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental advocates are vociferously opposed to weakening environmental review standards for large-scale forest thinning projects, as the House-passed Farm Bill proposes. Those provisions were not included in the Senate version of the legislation.
The House bill is ”very aggressive in terms of its logging provisions, it’s extremely controversial,” Nelson said.
Environmentalists, ecologists and forestry experts have raised particular concern about a proposal to log areas after fires have come through, which they argue would not help reduce the risk of future fires.
House and Senate negotiators are now trying to reconcile the two pieces of legislation by Sept. 30, when the existing law expires. And that time crunch has a lot to do with the dwindling prospects for the forestry provisions.
“I’d like to keep it in, and I think we have some momentum to keep it in,” Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock told McClatchy, citing the extreme fires that continue to burn throughout the West. “Our issue right now is the clock. The calendar is not our friend, and we have too many issues that still need to be negotiated, and the timing is working against us.”
In particular, negotiators have been consumed with trying to hash out an agreement on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. President Trump and House Republicans have insisted on adding new work requirements to the program, a nonstarter for many Democrats. Thus far, the two sides have not been able to resolve the issue.
With the House in session for just seven more legislative days this month and the Senate for 12, negotiators have little appetite for another major policy fight, legislative aides and lobbyists agree. On top of that, they point out, lawmakers in the House and Senate just recently had a debate on how to improve forest management, which resulted in a major political breakthrough this past spring. Republicans and Democrats agreed to fix a long-running problem with the National Forest Service’s budget as well as grant certain forest thinning projects an exemption from environmental review.
The deal was included in a spending bill that passed Congress passed March 23.
Some conservatives said the legislation fell short.
“We still have a long way to go,” Rep. Tom McClintock told McClatchy last month, noting tree density in some California forests is three times the healthy amount. McClintock, R-Elk Grove, represents a large swath of national forests in California, including Yosemite, which suffered environmental and economic losses from the Ferguson Fire in July and early August.
President Trump infamously tweeted that California’s deadly fires earlier this summer were being “made so much worse by the bad environmental laws“ and called for more tree clearing “to stop fire from spreading!” Zinke echoed Trump while touring the devastation of the Carr Fire in Shasta County on Aug. 12. “The president’s right. This is an example of how we have to actively manage our forests,” he said.
But as one lobbyist pointed out, the environmental exemptions in the House legislation were the ones that were “too controversial” to make it into the March agreement. A Senate aide characterized it as an attempt to do-over that bipartisan deal.
Those realities make it even harder to convince many lawmakers, particularly those outside the West, to stake the fate of the Farm Bill on these controversial forest measures, said the lobbyist, who asked not to be identified discussing ongoing legislative deliberations.
There are, however, some wildfire related measures that are likely to make it into the final law. One that has bipartisan support is a “timber innovation” grant program to try and help create new markets for wood that has traditionally considered “low value.” That wood comes from smaller trees — the kind that are disproportionately clogging the forests.