Governor Matt Mead’s recently-appointed Forest Health Task Force is working to highlight the threats facing Wyoming’s forests. Forested communities across the country, including right here in Wyoming, are too familiar with the economic and environmental problems plaguing our federally-owned forests. As timber harvests on federal lands dramatically declined, the closure of sawmills and other forest sector businesses resulted in the loss of jobs and economic diversity in local economies. The lack of active management has also made National Forests more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease.
Governor Mead and Task Force members can provide critical leadership identifying the problems, but ultimately Congress must act to reform the management of our federal forests, and that’s why U.S. Sen. John Barrasso introduced his National Forest Jobs and Management Act.
Sen. Barrasso’s bill is an important first step toward managing our forests for the future and creating rural jobs. The Obama Administration estimates that between 65 and 80 million acres of National Forest lands are at risk and need some form of treatment. Despite the significant need for active management, “analysis paralysis,” litigation, and conflicting regulations are preventing this work from taking place.
Sen. Barrasso’s bill reforms this broken system and provides more certainty for our local communities by directing the U.S. Forest Service to treat 7.5 million acres nationally, a small percentage of the acres in need, over a 15 year pilot period. Though critics dismiss it as a “mandated logging bill” the acreage under the Barrasso bill represents less than four percent of the total National Forest System. By comparison, more than half of the National Forest system is off-limits to most management activities. The legislation wouldn’t interfere with other federal land priorities, as some have claimed. It confines projects to lands that the Forest Service has already identified in the forest plans as suitable for sustainable timber production.
Contrary to claims that the bill represents an unfunded mandate on those of us in Wyoming, the legislation will ensure the U.S. Forest Service can once again fulfill its core responsibilities. The Forest Service once averaged over $1 billion in annual revenues from sustainable forest management but now spends two dollars for every one dollar it produces. In 2012, wildfires burned 9.3 million acres while the Forest Service harvested approximately 200,000 acres. With 44 times as many acres burned as were responsibly harvested, it’s no surprise the agency lacks funding. Without reforms, wildfire suppression costs will only continue to consume larger portions of the agency’s budget and available staff time.
Sen. Barrasso’s bill streamlines procedures to ensure compliance with environmental laws while addressing the high costs of litigation and regulatory gridlock. It applies the Forest Service’s up-front objections process to resolve disputes, and if that’s unsuccessful, provides arbitration to provide a timely independent review of agency decisions. As a result, Sen. Barrasso’s bill will help accelerate the pace and scale of forest management projects, saving taxpayer dollars while making it easier for the Forest Service to do its job.
Sen. Barrasso’s bill will also help restore the economic health of America’s rural communities, including those in Wyoming, which has lost nearly all of its sawmills since 2000. The decimation of forest sector business has taken a terrible toll on rural communities across the country. Increasing sustainable timber harvests will help sustain our remaining forest products infrastructure while providing more economic opportunities where they are desperately needed. Expanding active management of federal forest lands will also help diversify wildlife habitat, which further enhances recreational opportunities for our outdoors economy. And because the legislation provides counties with an extra 25 percent of revenue collected from forest projects, it will generate more funding for essential services in our rural communities.
Our federal forests and rural communities deserve comprehensive reforms that restore some semblance of balanced management. Though the actual forest management needs are far greater than what the bill provides, the reforms will help demonstrate the benefits of active management for federal forests and the people of Wyoming. We should thank Sen. Barrasso for introducing the National Forest Jobs and Management Act and encourage its passage.
Ogden Driskill is a sixth-generation rancher from Devils Tower. His ancestors were some of the earliest settlers in northeast Wyoming. He represents Crook and part of Campbell and Weston Counties in the Wyoming Senate.