Congress strikes out on timber reform in 2015


Just a week ago, it appeared that after years of fits and starts, Congress would finally pass federal timber reform legislation. Momentum had continued to grow after this year’s record wildfire season. Legislators said they wanted to add more active management of our federal forests onto legislation that would change the way the U.S. pays to fight forest fires.

In the last few weeks, the Obama Administration reached a deal with a bipartisan group of legislators, including many from Western states, as well as other stakeholders to attach federal timber reform and wildfire funding reform onto a $1.1 trillion year-end spending bill. But just a few days after the deal became public, it was dead.

Some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, swooped in at the last minute to kill the deal. That allowed Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate natural resources committee, to oppose the deal. To add to the upheaval, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the natural resources committee, decided to oppose the logging provision because she said it didn’t go far enough in increasing the federal timber harvest.

Today Congress approved the spending bill – without the timber or wildfire provisions. The evaporation of the the timber deal was a disappointment to the stakeholders who had worked so hard on the compromise.

The Portland-based American Forest Resource Council, which represents numerous timber firms, blasted the deal’s failure.

“Despite lost lives to catastrophic wildfires, hundreds of lost homes, billions of taxpayer dollars spent, and millions of acres of blacked forests, Congress once again failed to pass common sense forest management and fire borrowing reforms,” said the group’s president, Travis Joseph, in a statement. “After this year’s devastating fire season, I don’t know what else it’s going to take to get Congress to wake up and say: enough is enough, let’s fix this.”

Congress approved some stopgap money to fight wildfires for one year, but steered clear of a long-term wildfire funding fix. The Department of Agriculture weighed in on the move.

Robert Bonnie, the Agriculture Department undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, said he appreciated the additional money for next year’s fire season.

However, he added, it doesn’t solve the Forest Service’s long-term problem of not having enough to invest in forest restoration and management because “we’re devoting so much more in resources to fire fighting.”

Bonnie argued that the management changes were “well-designed” and would particularly ease the way for timber harvests that win the blessing of collaborative groups representing a wide variety of interests.

Advocates of timber reform will have to wait another year to see if legislation becomes reality.