The public certainly has an interest in the resiliency of its federally owned forest resources. Past ill-conceived management decisions, years of extreme underfunding for forest management and climate-related stresses, have left the forests at risk for a variety of ills. There is great potential for improvement. It doesn’t automatically follow, though, that sidestepping environmental protections and review processes and giving more control to private industry is the best way to accomplish that.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, House Bill 2936, is being co-sponsored by Rep. Scott Tipton, who says he remains a strong defender of public lands, at least in Southwest Colorado. This bill, though, definitely tilts toward the timber industry as the only solution to wildfire risk and forest degradation. What the proponents call “tools” can too easily become means for losing public control of our resources.
Critics of the United States Forest Service have long decried prior policies that have left forests overburdened with fuels, creating a greater risk of uncontrollable wildfires. That’s fair. It’s also in the past; federal forestry practices and policies have progressed, and if they were backed by adequate funding, they’d be working far better than they are.
Some of those unsuccessful policies were created in reaction to previous abuses. Watershed destruction and public horror that resulted from a moonscape of clearcuts raised concerns about the sustainability of timber resources and created public sentiment for preserving forests in their “natural state.”
The U.S. Forest Service went too far in leaving forests alone, and one result has been tremendously increased fire risk, but the solution is not to swing the pendulum all the way back to devastation for the sake of profits. We need to apply all the lessons of the past.
Science-based protection and conservation programs exist for good reason. Likewise, there’s justification for industry and government to be civilized adversaries, one advocating on behalf of private-sector profits and one for public-sector protections. Their interests may be congruent but rarely are identical. Environmental review is an important protection for us, the owners of those public lands.
The bill’s sponsors are right that it makes no sense for fire prevention and firefighting activities to compete for the same inadequate pot of funds. That just kicks the lighter-fluid can down the road. But that problem can be fixed on its own by acknowledging the need for greater funding and finding the money in the federal budget for a comprehensive fire plan, not enabling piecemeal private projects.
The bill would require those opposing a “forest management activity” to offer an alternative proposal rather than just saying no. That sounds good; but there are times, many times, when the right thing to do is to just say no and take some time to work together on a better approach.
The idea behind this bill may be a good one, but it goes too far in limiting public involvement, short-circuiting environmental and judicial reviews.
The problem of wildland fires and the destruction they cause is serious, and won’t be easily solved. However, the solution is not to repeal environmental protections and replace them with gifts to private industry.
Let’s say no and refine the plan a lot.