U.S. House passes sweeping package of timber reforms


Today marked some of the best news out of Washington, D.C., in years: the U.S. House passed the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, a sweeping set of timber reforms that would increase the federal timber harvest and restore rural communities across the West.

By a 244-173 vote, which included 17 Democrats voting yes, the House approved the bill sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Besides an increase in the federal timber harvest, the legislation also includes a harvest increase on Oregon’s federal forestland known as “O&C” land and a program created by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that allows some counties to manage their own land. (Go here and here for more details of what’s in the bill.)

The bill marks a huge shift in political and public sentiment: no longer are federal leaders sweeping the problem of our rural economies and federal forest mismanagement under the rug. Here’s what Tom Partin, President of the American Forest Resource Council, had to say:

For over 20 years, Congress has largely ignored the plight of our rural communities and forests, focusing on debilitating short-term handouts to county governments, rather than restoring vitality to these communities. We hope that today’s vote by the House signals that the era of merely kicking the can down the road, while rural America withers away and our forests die from wildfire, insects and disease, is at an end.

Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a grassroots coalition of working forest advocates in Oregon, had this reaction:

H.R. 1526 is the most significant forest management legislation to advance in years, and it shows that Congress is serious about addressing the environmental and economic problems that are plaguing the forests and the Americans who depend on this renewable resource for their livelihoods. After a summer of catastrophic wildfires, there is growing momentum for solutions that restore forest health while putting people back to work in our national forests.

Click on the names to see videos of two of the sponsors of the O&C portion of the bill, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., speaking on the House floor in support of the legislation. The Yakima Herald Republic took a look at the impact the bill would have in Washington state, including this passage:

The federal government would give 25 percent of revenues from timber sales back to the counties with national forest land, including Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas. Advocates call the plan a return to active forest management that could reduce wildfire risks, improve forest health, create about 200,000 jobs nationally and raise funds for rural communities.

Environmental groups – most of whom oppose any significant increase in the timber harvest at any cost – are getting very worried, as evidenced by protesters hanging this week from the Oregon State Capitol building and a statewide media campaign in Oregon opposing the legislation.

As we’ve noted before, House approval of the bill – while a significant milestone – is not the end of the story. Attention now shifts to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who says he is coming up with his own timber reform plan. President Obama this week also vowed to veto the House legislation if it comes to his desk in its current form.

Wyden’s plan will, at best, be a significantly neutered version of the House bill, but even worse, most reports indicate his plan – at least in its earliest form – would only cover the O&C lands in his home state of Oregon. (We’ve written previously about Wyden’s key role in the legislation here and here.)

If anything gets approved by Congress, it will be a compromise deal between Senate Democrats and House Republicans. Which is why timber advocates are asking the Senate to take heed of the political momentum and social needs behind the House legislation.

Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities:

We hope that the U.S. Senate will carefully consider H.R. 1526 and its O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs title and approve legislation that offers real reforms for U.S. Forest Service and BLM lands. Forest management is not a partisan issue, and Americans should expect Republicans and Democrats to come together to find balanced solutions that saves our rural communities while ensuring our federal forests are vibrant and healthy for future generations.

Tom Partin, American Forest Resource Council:

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is in a key position to fix the current, broken system and put forth a lasting solution to over 20 years of neglect of rural, forested communities in Oregon and across America. Senator Wyden has acknowledged that misused environmental laws and litigation are hampering responsible management by the Forest Service and has committed to resolving this problem. Senator Wyden has also acknowledged that the status quo is killing communities and bankrupting counties in Western Oregon and is drafting his own solution for the O&C lands.

…We appreciate the efforts of the U.S. House and look forward to seeing Senator Wyden’s proposal for meeting the needs of rural communities and federal forests in Oregon and throughout our nation.