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Our National Forests Must be Protected from “Lawless” Logging

S. 1966, the “National Forests Job and Management Act of 2014,” would result in the loss of at least 7.5 million acres over a 15-year period.

Silver Glen Springs in the Ocala National Forest, Florida

Silver Glen Springs in the Ocala National Forest, Florida

Photo courtesy of USGS

My first introduction to America’s national heritage was camping with my family in Ocala National Forest in Florida, where I grew up. My grandfather was raised hunting and fishing in and around the forest, and even after he moved to a different part of the state he would make an effort to go back there often. 

Ocala National Forest brings in people from all over who like to hunt and fish like my Papa, but also those who (like me) prefer to swim, scuba dive, hike, canoe, camp or participate in a whole host of outdoor recreational activities. It’s just one of more than 150 national forests scattered across the country, each of which holds special meaning to those who visit, whether it’s just once on vacation or countless times.  

I couldn’t imagine what my grandfather would say if he heard that members of the U.S. Senate were trying to unnecessarily mandate logging in such beautiful, unique places that meant so much to him and still do for scores of other Americans. Although the Ocala National Forest is not (currently) at risk, millions of acres of national forests in the western United States are being targeted in a proposed bill that the Senate Environment and Natural Resources committee will vote on November 13, 2014.  

S. 1966, the “National Forests Job and Management Act of 2014,” sponsored by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), would require logging in up to 25 percent of designated “logging emphasis areas. These are broadly defined as any area deemed suitable for timber production—regardless of whether it has been previously logged—and can include wilderness study areas, old growth, and other ecologically sensitive areas. This amount of logging would result in the loss of at least 7.5 million acres over a 15-year period (a near tripling of current logging levels), as well as devastate all the vital benefits these lands provide, such as clean drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities like hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.    

Even more alarming is that the bill would essentially render all federal laws unenforceable and institute “lawless” logging since citizen opportunity for judicial review is eliminated and replaced with an extremely biased and binding arbitration process. Arbitrators are prohibited from considering whether a project complies with the law and can only confirm or adopt a proposed logging project based solely on compliance with the announced purpose and need for logging. As a result, there is no way to ensure that logging projects are carried out pursuant to bedrock laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and land management plans developed under the National Forest Management Act. No matter how large, damaging or controversial a project, S. 1966 simply rubber stamps destructive development of our natural heritage while eliminating critical environmental safeguards, the public engagement process, and fundamental citizen oversight and enforcement of our nation’s laws. 

While I largely associate the national forests out West with hiking, rock climbing and other recreational activities—which, according to the Forest Service, sustain close to 200,000 full-time and part-time jobs and contribute more than $13 billion to the national gross domestic product—they also have a large role in protecting vital watersheds. In fact, 50 percent of fresh drinking water supplies in the West come from these forests. Increased logging would not only ruin the economically viable tourism and recreation industry but also result in the dumping of mud and silt into watersheds that could reduce drinking water supplies and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in new water treatment facilities.

S. 1966 would unnecessarily decimate our natural heritage under the pretense of creating revenues for local governments. However, the economics simply don’t make sense, as the cost of implementing S. 1966’s logging requirements will require significant new federal spending by the Forest Service to prepare and administer a greater number of timber sales. Moreover, this bill fails to provide a long-term, sustainable funding solution for our rural communities and will result in counties receiving far less in annual payments than they have received under the Secure Rural Schools Act of 2000 (SRS), a bipartisan law that discredited the system of linking logging to revenue for counties.  The Congressional Budget Office’s report on a similar House bill, H.R. 1526, confirmed that payments generated from that bill’s mandated logging requirements would average just over $50 million annually, which is far less than the approximately $350 million/year that counties have received under SRS. It’s clear that this bill is simply a shortsighted proposal that will cost taxpayers more than the revenue it generates and result in rural communities receiving smaller payments, while decimating the national forest land that they rely on for drinking water, tourism and recreation.

Growing up, and now working, on the East Coast, I haven’t spent as much time as I would like out West. But on one long road trip across country, I was lucky enough to explore some of our natural treasures, such as Sequoia, Coronado, Santa Fe and Mount Hood National Forests, among others. These special places are part of what makes the U.S. landscape unique. If Senator Barrasso’s bill were to pass, I would likely not see the same Sequoia or Mount Hood that I saw years ago. And, with the impacts of climate change already causing irreparable damage—like more frequent droughts and forest fires—the significantly higher levels of logging mandated in this bill could send our national forests, along with the wildlife, habitats and vital resources that they protect, over the tipping point. 

But you can play a part in protecting our natural heritage. Please call Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and urge her to avoid bringing S. 1966 before the committee for a vote on November 13th, let alone supporting and moving it through to the Senate floor where it could be considered for passage into law.  With your help, we can save our national forests and rural communities from unnecessary ecological and economic harm.  

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