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Today is a big day for U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, who represents the Fourth Congressional District of Arkansas, and for the nation's federal forests.

The Republican freshman Westerman, whose district covers much of south and western Arkansas and extends as far north as Madison County, will see his first bill reach the House floor today. Given the volume of national forests and logging companies within his district, perhaps it's no surprise the bill has to do with how to manage the trees on public lands.

What’s the point?

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman’s bill to strengthen the Forest Service’s ability to manage federal forests is a proposal worthy of consideration even though elements of it raise concerns.

Westerman, who holds a master's degree in forestry from Yale University, is the sponsor of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. The bill attempts to strengthen the hand of the U.S. Forest Service in managing 193 million acres in 154 national forests.

Arkansas is home to the 1.8 million-acre Ouachita National Forest, the 1.2 million-acre Ozark National Forest and the 22,600-acre St. Francis National Forest. Huge portions of the Ouachita and Ozark forests fall within Westerman's district.

His proposal is aimed at removing the litigation-driven shackles that often frustrate the forest management activities of the Forest Service and its professional foresters. For decades, litigation has been one of the strongest tools of environmental groups who have their own ideas how to best handle forest management. The result in many instances has been a lack of forest management as litigation makes its way through the judicial system.

Westerman's bill would attempt to protect the Forest Service's action plans by forcing those who sue to post a bond that will cover the agency's litigation-related costs should the plaintiffs lose the case. It would streamline environmental analyses and limit the use of judge-ordered preliminary injunctions so that the Forest Service. in certain instances, faces fewer barriers to executing their forest management plans

Supporters argue the Forest Service's collaboration with diverse groups in developing its management plans are a strong part of the process that can often be thwarted for years by a single lawsuit. The Forest Service's professional forest managers utilize science in determining the best ways to protect forests from wildfire, insect infestation and other dangers, they say.

The legislation gives the Forest Service an ability to quickly set in motion projects up to 5,000 acres that reduce the forest's susceptibility to those dangers or to implement salvage operations in the wake of a wildfire.

The goal of Westerman's bill is worthwhile. For too long, the nation's chief agency for managing public forest lands has been stifled from doing so effectively because of litigation from environmental groups. Tempering that, especially on projects where the agency has collaborated with stakeholders, is one way to stop what's become frustrating ineffectiveness in managing public lands.

It is disconcerting, however, to see Congress eager to create barriers that could prevent legitimate litigation against an agency that's far from perfect. Westerman considers the litigation involving the national forests to come from "special interests," which in some cases is true, but in others, "special interests" only refers to like-minded people who have bound themselves together for a common purpose so that they might attempt to have the same level of influence on the political process as labor unions, wealthy donors, corporations and the like. Those special interests can, and often do, include some of Westerman's own constituents.

Additionally, the bond requirement for anyone who wants to use the courts to adjudicate a disagreement will no doubt prevent some unnecessary lawsuits designed only to frustrate Forest Service efforts. But they can also stand as a barrier to individuals. In a congressional district where the median household income is less than $36,000 a year, posting a bond that could total hundreds of thousands of dollars puts one's day in court entirely out of reach, even if litigation might prove the agency's plans are illegal.

These kinds of concerns are why the Obama administration came out opposed to Westerman's bill.The White House said the bill undermines forest restoration, environmental safeguards and public participation across the National Forest System.

In Arkansas, litigation has often undermined reasonable forest management. Westerman's bill may go a bit far in its effort to find a balance in managing national forest lands, but a better balance is undoubtedly needed.

Commentary on 07/09/2015

Print Headline: Seeing the forests

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