The GOP-controlled House of Representatives, which has steadfastly resisted funding efforts to thin national forests for safety and ecological reasons, voted last week to double timber harvests in the nation, which would almost certainly ramp up logging on California’s 20 million acres of federal land.
Representative Tom McClintock, a three-term Republican from California whose district is being ravaged by the month-long Rim Fire, has been outspoken in blaming the disaster on logging restrictions. “When we carried it [thinning forests] out through timber harvesting, we had fewer and less intense forest fires, healthier and more disease-resistant and pest-resistant trees, a healthier watershed and a thriving local economy.”
That was also true before Congress began reducing funding for programs to systematically thin forests and whacked it one more time this year with the austerity sequester of 10% cuts across-the-board in federal spending. Cuts in fire preparedness coincide with the acceleration of global warming, considered by many to be a major contributor to recent increases in forest fires.
Republicans claimed the bill was passed on a bipartisan basis, after getting 17 Democrats to join them in the 244-173 vote. All the “no” votes were cast by Democrats.
The bill fundamentally changes the way forests on national land would be managed. It would, for the first time, set timber harvesting levels in legislation, rather than through the more deliberative regulatory process that includes public input and environmental analyses. And it provides exemptions from the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto HR 1526 (pdf), ironically known as the “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act,” if it reaches his desk. A policy statement (pdf) from the Office of the President blasts the bill for gutting environmental protections, creating conflicts with existing laws that will land in court, empowering the states to interfere with federal management of federal lands, restricting the president’s authority to designate national monuments in the region, and generally degrading the forests by unleashing commercial grazing and timber harvest interests.