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For far too long, our nation's forests have been fighting a battle for survival. The conflict is not with logging, but with effects of reactive versus proactive management which has resulted in costly confrontations with wildfire, disease, and insects.

You see, on private timberland and many state lands, voluntary best-management forestry standards are put in place that ensure sustainable reforestation to promote healthy forests that produce construction materials, paper, and other consumer products while providing an array of multiple uses including recreation, wildlife habitat, better water quality, cleaner air, and soil protection.

However, in recent years, scientific forest management practices like controlled burns and timber harvesting have been challenged in court, resulting in overgrown, stressed forests that are unhealthy and subject to natural calamities. The trend has moved toward "unmanaged" forestland on national forests with one caveat. When a fire starts, we are put in a reactive management position of fighting the fire. As a result, states like California and Colorado have experienced some of the most destructive wildfires on record during the last two decades.

To reverse this trend, I introduced the Resilient Federal Forests Act on June 4. This bill would utilize tools already available to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and provide protection to America's forests.

Prevention of wildfires is not a perfect science. Most wildfires are started by lightning strikes, so fires will always burn in our forests. This legislation encourages the restoration of land after a large wildfire by expediting the environmental review for the removal of dead trees to pay for reforestation, and requires an environmental assessment within three months of a wildfire. Additionally, it ensures that the USFS prioritizes reforestation of burned areas by mandating at least 50 percent of a burned area be reforested within two years of a fire.

This bill also incentivizes and rewards collaborative projects in communities connected to the national forests and speeds up habitat improvement projects for a variety of animals, including wild turkey, ruffed grouse, elk, deer, and other forest-dependent species. Collaborative projects are a great way to get all stakeholders--from the timber industry to environmentalists--at the table to come up with a plan to better manage the forests.

Unfortunately, groups often sue in the name of forest protection to prevent any sort of forest management from taking place, including collaborative work. My bill stops these frivolous lawsuits by requiring litigants to post a bond before their case can move forward. If the litigants lose their bond, the USFS can collect attorney's fees.

Perhaps most important to many states and their citizens is a provision in the bill which allows for new funding sources for national forest projects.

These include "revolving funds" for projects on national forest lands that are funded by states. Montana, New Mexico, and Oregon have already set aside money to fund national forest projects that would prevent catastrophic wildfires. Passage of this legislation would allow states to work with the federal government on better management of our forests. It protects the federal land and it protects the property of adjacent landowners.

Last but not least, this bill would modernize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS), which has been extended several times since it was originally enacted in 2000. My bill would provide much-needed updates to SRS, such as returning to counties a share of forest receipts for long-term stewardship projects. Under current law, county governments do not receive any payments from stewardship projects conducted within their borders.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 is about making policy that allows forestry professionals to proactively manage our forests to be healthy, productive, and indeed resilient.

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U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman represents Arkansas' 4th District.

Editorial on 06/06/2015

Print Headline: Into the woods

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