In the wake of wildfires this year that burned 4 million acres nationally and damaged or destroyed 1,055 homes at a cost of about $1.4 billion to the government, the House passed the Restoring Healthy Forests For Healthy Communities Act on Friday by a vote of 244-173, largely along party lines. This bill seeks to create “healthy forests” by in essence getting rid of them as it would expand commercial logging on national forests and place limits on environmental reviews about the effects of timber-cutting projects.
In other words, the bill lets the commercial logging industry have access to more trees and get to cut them down, too.
Under the Restoring Healthy Forests For Healthy Communities Act, the limits on timber harvest levels nationwide would be more than doubled, increasing from the current limit of 2.5 billion board feet for sale to about 6 million board feet. Such a change would have a dramatic impact on California’s 18 national forests. About 22,000 acres are now logged but 5 million acres could actually be harvested.
Republicans contend that the measure will create jobs and otherwise benefit rural communities. About a quarter of the money from timber sales is to go towards schools and other services.
Democrats pointed out that the bill simply threatens California’s forests. Under the Restoring Healthy Forests For Healthy Communities Act, logging and road building would be allowed in areas that are now without such. Wildlife will surely be disrupted as a result. Even more, the bill could curtail public reviews of proposed timber-cutting projects to assess their impact on the environment; a Republican-sponsored amendment that would waive judicial reviews of timber salvage projects resulting from wildfires was also passed.
Republican supporters of the bill argue that clearing forests is necessary to halt deadly forest fires. “As the board feet harvested out of these forests has declined, the acreage incinerated by forest fires has increased proportionately and contemporaneously,” as Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) said in the Los Angeles Times.
McClintock’s district includes Yosemite National Park, where this past summer’s Rim fire (the third-largest blaze in California history) burned 256,895 acres and was the third-largest blaze in California history; he certainly has reason to have heightened concerns about wildfires. But clearing forests can actually leave land more vulnerable to fires.
As Grist points out, forests play a part in the management of deadly wild fires on the scale of this past summer’s Rim fire. Some wildfires serve a purpose:
By taking a hard-line approach to fighting every wildfire, Americans have inadvertently created unnaturally incendiary conditions. Leaf litter, woody detritus, and dense stands of trees that would be cleared out by frequent fires build up, then explode into infernos. Meanwhile, scores of small trees that flourish in the absence of regular fires can damage ecosystems and hog water.
What’s really needed is to adequately fund the Forest Service not only so that it can fight wildfires but prevent them. As Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) observes, Republicans have been slashing the Forest Service’s budget and its fuel load reduction productions at a time when drought, climate change and other factors have lengthened firefighting season. Firefighting costs now take up 40 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, versus 13 percent in the past.
President Obama has indicated he will veto the Restoring Healthy Forests For Healthy Communities Act and the Senate is highly unlikely to pass it. “Bills that undermine bedrock environmental laws or turn over large swaths of federal land to private ownership cannot pass the Senate or be signed into law by the president,’’ said Keith Chu, a spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Wildlife, including the black bear and other species, would surely be affected by the loss of their habitat if commercial logging in the U.S. forests grows. A recent study in Science magazine found that when forests in Thailand became fragmented after trees were cleared to make way for farming and roads, some native species of mammals died out in 25 years.
A bill like the Restoring Healthy Forests For Healthy Communities Act that establishes mandatory production quotas for timber is a step in the wrong direction and yet another example of Republicans putting political (and commercial) interests ahead of science, at the expense of the U.S.’s forests.
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