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story.lead_photo.caption U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (front left) watches Thursday as another member presents Westerman’s bill on removing obstacles to thinning national forests to avoid forest fires. - Photo by Sarah D. Wire

WASHINGTON -- Legislation by U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., to speed up thinning of federal forests to curb wildfires passed Thursday in the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, HR2647, was sent to the House floor on a nearly party line 22-15 vote.

The bill would streamline environmental analyses, discourage litigation and limit the use of preliminary injunctions to make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to execute management plans that include removing trees or brush, or selectively burning some areas to generate new growth.

Agency efforts to remove trees because of insect infestation or disease, to improve critical habitat or to salvage dead trees after a fire, in certain situations would be excluded from a full environmental study that is currently required by federal law.

"It's important for forest health, which translates into less fires, less insect disease. It makes our forests more productive and healthy, and saves our government money, saves our taxpayers money," Westerman said. "This legislation simply limits the red tape that hinders the ability of projects to move forward."

The bill also allows counties that have large tracts of federal forestland to use some Secure Rural Schools funds on law enforcement training, equipment and patrols.

Westerman, who has a master's degree in forestry from Yale University and worked as an engineer and forester for 22 years, said many national forests are overgrown because the Forest Service is so scared of lawsuits that it is afraid to act.

"Our forests are suffering due to overgrowth, wildfires, and insect and disease infestation," he said. Arkansas is home to the Ouachita, Ozark and St. Francis national forests.

The U.S. Forest Service manages more than 140 national forests and grasslands.

Opponents say two parts of the bill would limit citizens' ability to challenge Forest Service activities.

It would require people suing the government to stop Forest Service activities to post a bond for the service's anticipated costs and fees. If the government loses, the bond would be returned. If the suing party doesn't win every part of its case, the government would keep as much of the bond necessary to repay taxpayers.

The bill also prohibits judges from issuing restraining orders or preliminary injunctions to stop salvage or reforestation efforts in a large area affected by a natural disaster. When an injunction is allowed, the court would have to consider the short- and long-term effects of whether the agency performs the action.

Sierra Club of Arkansas Chapter Director Glenn Hooks said the bond requirement would "cripple" the group's ability to challenge the service.

"One of the reasons that Sierra Club exists is to use all legal means to protect places like our national forests, and oftentimes that means seeking an injunction to stop harmful actions from taking place," he said. "If we're forced to post a bond, an exorbitant amount in a bond, we're not going to be able to do that."

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., attempted to strip both sections from the bill Thursday, but the committee voted 22-16 to defeat his amendment.

Arkansas State Forester Joe Fox said the bond would limit frivolous suits filed to delay a management plan indefinitely. He said local stakeholders weigh in while the Forest Service is deciding what to do, and outside parties swoop in to stop it.

"National forests have done a really good job in engaging the public. The Forest Service plans are vetted to the extreme," he said. "Once the Forest Service makes a decision, they shouldn't have to fight back lawsuit after lawsuit."

When a salvage project is delayed, the timber becomes less profitable for timber companies, he said. When a suit is resolved, the Forest Service has to pay a company to take the timber versus having a private company pay the Forest Service to do it.

In a news release Tuesday, the National Forest Service said there is a 90 percent chance that its fire-suppression costs this year will be between $810 million and $1.62 billion.

The cost of fighting wildfires has increased from 16 percent of the agency's total budget in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015, the release states. The agency has had to "borrow" funds from efforts that keep forests healthy and reduce the severity and cost of fires.

Westerman said the bill unties the hands of people trained to manage forests.

"I think the public is really waking up to the fact that not managing the forest is really a management decision," Westerman said. "We're spending all this money to fight fires, and we need to do something to reverse that trend, to make the forests healthier so we don't have as much cost."

Metro on 06/12/2015

Print Headline: Westerman bill on U.S. forest management gains ground

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