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WASHINGTON -- Legislation to allow the U.S. Forest Service to speed up thinning of federal forests to control wildfires is headed to the U.S. House of Representatives floor after passing two committees.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, House Resolution 2647, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs, was approved without a recorded vote by the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday. The House Natural Resources Committee approved the bill a week before. Bills are frequently considered by more than one committee.

Westerman, who has a master's degree in forestry from Yale University and worked as an engineer and forester for 22 years, said by phone afterward that he feels good about the bill's chances.

"It's queued up now and ready to go to the House floor, and I think we've got a real good shot at passing it there," he said.

He has said the Forest Service is so scared of lawsuits that it is afraid to properly manage forests. Overgrown and undermaintained forests lead to bigger wildfires, he said.

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.

Some efforts to remove diseased or insect-infested trees, to improve critical habitat or to salvage dead trees after a fire would be excluded from a full environmental study that is currently required by federal law.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, called it an important step toward healthier forests and fewer wildfires.

"Our national forests are facing an epidemic of declining health, which is in direct correlation to policies that have led to a dramatic decrease in the managed acres," he said.

The most senior Democratic member of the committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said he supported the bill because he is concerned about lawsuits being used to stall forest projects.

"Environmental groups have used the court system to twist laws against agriculture, which then leads to policy changes decided by activists and bureaucrats," he said.

He noted concerns with the bill, but he and Conaway agreed to let the bill move forward and iron out issues before it goes to the full House.

The bill also reduces the size of "resource advisory committees" from 15 to six people and restricts committee members to those living in forested counties rather than coming from anywhere in the state. Those committees, evenly split between business and environmental interests and affected citizens, make recommendations about proposed projects on Forest Service land. Westerman's staff members say it's often difficult to find enough people to fill the posts.

A single committee represents Arkansas' three national forests, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Currently, three of the 15 positions are filled (two by members of an environmental group), and the Forest Service is in the process of appointing people to fill the other 12 spots.

The Wilderness Society spokesman Alan Rowsome said a 15-member committee is more diverse than a six-member committee would be. The Washington-based advocacy group opposes the bill.

"Each one of those stakeholders who is at the table, who is part of the [committee], is an important voice to be heard as decisions get made about the future of a particular forest," he said.

People who sue to stop a project on federal forest land would be required by Westerman's bill 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 as necessary to pay for its legal expenses.

"It would be prohibitive," Rowsome said. "It would definitely be a deterrent to filing litigation."

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said after the Agriculture Committee hearing that she is worried about the number of people on the committees and wants to change the bond section of the bill.

She said it should stop frivolous lawsuits but protect legitimate claims.

"I want to make sure if there is an issue of significant and real disagreement that they are not prohibited from being able to get that dispute resolved in a court of law," Grisham said. "Otherwise, they are excluded from that decision-making process, and that doesn't seem fair to me."

Similar sentiments came up in the House Natural Resources Committee. Westerman said he wouldn't support such a change.

"I don't think it's denying people access to the courts, but I think it will be a tool to make them think about -- do they have a valid complaint or are they just doing this as some form of activism?" he said.

Metro on 06/21/2015

Print Headline: Westerman-backed forest bill advances

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