WASHINGTON -- If U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman's legislation passes, it'll be easier to cut down trees in the nation's forests and harder for critics and federal courts to slow the process.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, which Westerman introduced late Tuesday, is backed by the timber industry and House Republican leadership, but opposed by a long list of environmental groups.
If passed, it would eliminate the need for lengthy federal environmental assessments in many instances, allowing projects to move forward in months that might otherwise have taken years.
Forest management plans covering fewer than 10,000 acres -- roughly 16 square miles -- would be exempt from the lengthier studies. Plans covering up to 30,000 acres could be fast-tracked if they were developed in collaboration with area stakeholders.
Anyone opposing the plan would be able to sue, but their legal options would be restricted.
Judges would no longer be allowed to issue restraining orders or preliminary injunctions to halt salvage operations or reforestation efforts in the wake of large fires or some other "large-scale catastrophic event."
When the plan is in response to a catastrophic event, the timeline for public comment would be shortened.
Environmentalists who successfully sued would no longer be able to recover attorneys fees for "forest management activity challenges," the law states.
Westerman, a Hot Springs Republican who represents all of southwestern Arkansas, introduced similar legislation in 2015. It quickly passed in the House but faced opposition from the White House and stalled in the Senate.
This time, the measure is again on the fast track. The House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to take up the legislation today. A committee vote is likely next week.
"The goal is to have it on the [House] floor before the August recess [and then] get it over to the Senate," Westerman said. "I think the White House will be pushing for this."
In 2015, 10.1 million acres of forestland were destroyed, Westerman said, attributing the devastation to problems with the current system.
"The data shows that the forests are being harmed and the harm is coming from a lack of management. When you go back up the decision tree on why there's a lack of management, it's because the management gets stopped in court," he said in an interview Wednesday.
The American Forest and Paper Association, an industry group, supports the legislation.
"AF&PA applauds Congressman Westerman's leadership in offering the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 to improve the forest management practices which would enable our nation's forests to remain healthy and sustainable," said association President and CEO Donna Harman.
But Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns for the Wilderness Society, said Westerman's bill is a step backward.
"We see it as fundamentally undermining the laws that protect our national forests, jeopardizing citizen involvement in the management of our national forests and threatening the values that many Americans care about with regards to our national forests."
Business on 06/22/2017
Print Headline: Westerman pushes bill to grease wheels on cutting in forests