Forest service

See the forest for the trees

Posted: November 6, 2017 at 1 a.m.

IT’S NOT often that Bruce Wester-man makes the news, or at least controversial news. He seems a laid-back sorta guy, and a congressman who’s not in need of constant attention and publicity. He’s not likely to knock you over if you get between him and a cameraman. Which, when it comes to sitting congressmen, is not a virtue to be sneezed at.

The Republican from Hot Springs, Ark., also happens to have a master’s degree from Yale University—in forestry. And until we met Bruce Westerman, we didn’t even know that Yale offered such courses. Suffice it to say, the man knows his trees. And problems with them.

He sponsored a bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week that would, for starters, make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to manage the nation’s deer woods. And elk woods. And bear woods. And trail woods and bike woods and camping woods and woods in general.

His bill would, among other things, make it harder for environmentalists and their lawyers to derail forest management plans. Or, putting it another way, his bill would allow faster approval for logging and other actions that might slow down forest fires.

All it takes is a peek at the news these days to see that this nation’s forest management plans haven’t been doing the trick. This year alone, the feds have spent a record $2.5 billion on fighting fires in the national forests and last month at least 43 people were killed in California alone.

According to the public presses, congressmen have two ways of looking at the problem. Some start at the front end, some at the wrong end.

Bruce Westerman’s bill would increase access to commercial loggers, better to take the fuel out of the forests before the fires begin. Not to mention getting a jump on any pest or disease that our federal foresters and experts might see coming. Rep. Westerman’s bill would help trim back overgrown forests and speed up review under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

NB: Not bypass those acts. The bill would “speed up review.”

But there’s other legislation wafting around the nation’s capital that would fight the problem from a different angle. Instead of nipping the problem on the front end, one bill would simply give the fire fighters access to disaster funds so the federal forest agency could get funding out of the same bucket that goes to restoring neighborhoods after hurricanes and floods.

By the opposition ye shall know them: Here is John Garamendi, a Democratic congressman from California who supports the second approach: That other bill “goes to the heart of the funding problem. It’s a much, much better solution and it’s one that avoids the environmental challenge.”

Hmmm. Do you think those folks who lose their homes in hurricanes would (1) want a more streamlined federal disaster aid plan after the disaster, or (2) avoid the hurricane in the first place?

Besides, Bruce Westerman’s bill doesn’t ignore funding snags. The legislation would also make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to get more money in years when it’s needed.

According to Rep. Westerman, forests in “many areas across our country have been mismanaged for decades. The ones that have not already been destroyed are ripe to be devastated by insects, disease or catastrophic wildfire. Because of [inaction] our forests are overstocked, underutilized and unhealthy.”

He should know.

WHAT MIGHT really get under the skin of the greens is this piece of the puzzle: Bruce Westerman’s bill would also prevent environmentalists from recouping their attorney’s fees when they sue to block forest management plans.

Another United States congressman from a state that has a recurring interest in all this backs Bruce Westerman’s bill. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said the bill would help end “the endless, frivolous litigation” that slows down forest management in his state.

“On balance,” Rep. Schrader says, “this is a very good bill and much needed at this time.”

He should know, too.

The bill now goes to the United States Senate. Where it should be given attention, soonest. Or will the nation have to wait until the next fire season to take this problem seriously?

cc: John Boozman, Tom Cotton