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FRAN ALEXANDER: Smoke gets in their eyes

House passes Westerman’s forest bill; Senate should say no by Fran Alexander | December 5, 2017 at 1:00 a.m.

This upside-down world we're living in leaves us questioning not only what we are told, but distrustful that our facts might actually be fallacies. Up is down, right is left, black is white and right is wrong. Under these conditions, scrutinizing all laws for their true intent, in spite of their titles, is vital.

For example, upon close inspection of Arkansas U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman's "Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017," one begins to realize that what he calls "resiliency" in practice will actually translate into "cut, cut, cut." His bill is more about the resiliency of the timber industry's bottom line than it is of biologically balanced forests.

Our national forests were established to be managed for multiple uses like recreation, wildlife habitat, hunting, grasslands and watershed protection. Timber production was not supposed to dominate those other uses. However, decades of forestry wars have centered on environmentalists battling to save wildlife species and their habitats, keeping eroding soil out of creeks and rivers, valuing magnificent scenery, maintaining diversity in ecosystems, protecting endangered plants and animals and having grand trees to walk and camp beneath. These efforts have required citizen participation, which requires endless organizing and fundraising, and at times even filing lawsuits. They've had to sue for legal interpretations of just how you can preserve a tree by cutting it down, or save watersheds by polluting them, or protect wildlife by destroying their food and habitat.

While multiple uses of our forests can exist alongside timber harvesting, they cannot survive if logging is the end-all activity that laws are written to favor. No matter that the Forth District's congressman has shrouded his law under the pretext of fire prevention, by the time you reach the end of its 75 pages you realize resilient healthy forests are not the true end-game goal. Or at least you realize that a master's degree in forestry from Yale does not turn someone into an ecologist any more than George W. Bush's Yale degree in history helped him figure out which country was to blame for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City. Much of this bill is an insult to other professional foresters.

Both fire suppression and light prescribed burning are forest management tools, but this bill, which has now passed in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and will go to the Senate, does a lot more than deal with the fuel build-up on forest floors. It guts provisions in the National Environmental Policy Act where page after page of "categorical exclusions" essentially rip out regulations that protect threatened species and special and historic places. It shortens time for reviewing management action proposals, and if the goal is to attack a disease or bug infestation or diminish fuel loads, no new impact statements will be required if actions will affect 10,000 acres or less (that's almost 16 square miles). This size can possibly rise to 30,000 acres (almost 47 square miles) of forests no matter where they are located. And there appear to be no rules preventing these huge tracts from being close to each other, which multiplies their impact.

Growing our national forests with human-selected tree species harvested at a convenient age and size is, in reality, commercial tree farming and does not sustain anything similar to a forest ecosystem. Converting mixed woods to single species plantations is what the huge timber companies do now on their vast holdings, but never satisfied, they want these same practices in our public forests.

Additionally this bill shrinks review boards to only a few representatives and keeps them very localized, although the national forests belong to all U.S. citizens with a wide range of forest concerns. It implies that environmental lawsuits are the reason the forests haven't been managed better for fire conditions, while ignoring Forest Service personnel cutbacks, drought, and spreading land developments as major causes. Also, making citizens pay up front for a lawsuit, whether they win it or not, pretty well guarantees decisions will not be challenged even when they result in devastating damage to forests and watersheds. Critics calling environmental challenges "frivolous" have obviously never had to raise money at the grassroots level to pay for them. Those who reap profits off of public resources have little room for casting ulterior motives onto those who oppose their activities.

National forests cover more than 7 percent of Arkansas. Please tell Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman to listen to more than one voice about their management.

Commentary on 12/05/2017

Print Headline: Smoke gets in their eyes


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