Dispatch from the other Washington
Conservation Northwest / Mar 20, 2018 / Legislation, Protecting Wildlands
A report from Mitch after his trip to D.C. advocating for national forests, wildfire funding and roadless areas.
Wednesday 3/21 Update: Credible reports indicate that Congressional leaders reached a deal early Wednesday morning on a wildfire funding fix. It appears to not include the feared riders related to Alaska or roadless areas, but we await further details of what is included. The agreed upon provisions would be amended to the Omnibus Appropriations Bill that Congress has a Friday night deadline to pass. See our statement here.
By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director
So you’ve seen what Administrator Scott Pruitt is doing to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and what Secretary Ryan Zinke is doing to the Department of the Interior, and you’re naturally wondering whether our national forests are similarly under assault. I’ve got generally good news for you both in terms of leadership and Congressional actions. I just spent a week in D.C., so I’m fairly current with this report.
The U.S. Forest Service is within the Department of Agriculture (USDA). While Secretary Sonny Perdue is considered one of Trump’s less controversial appointments, it’s probably more important that nobody has even been nominated for the position of Under Secretary in charge of the Forest Service. The wing of the USDA building that oversees the Forest Service has been quiet and without leadership for over a year. In this administration, that’s a good thing!
Perhaps even more surprisingly, Trump’s choice as his first Chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tooke, was a well-liked career man who was generally continuing with business as usual at the agency, until he resigned last week due to longstanding problems in the sexual culture of the agency, which he wasn’t well suited to address. The person appointed to assume the Chief role for at least the interim is Vicki Christianson, who is also highly regarded (including here in Washington, where she served as a state Department of Natural Resources executive). In short, the U.S. Forest Service has so far continued under the Trump Administration as a professional agency, with the same strengths and weaknesses it’s long had.
In Congress, there has been plenty of activity related to forest management, but little results. We’ve raised the alarm about pro-logging legislation such as the Westerman Bill, which passed the House last year. Fortunately, the Senate has properly functioned as the graveyard of such bills. Actually, Congress hasn’t been doing much passing of bills generally. So each time that Congress absolutely has to pass something, such as the big budget deal in early February and a couple of appropriations bills (remember the government shutdown?), there’s been a flurry of negotiations on whether to attach to those bills’ provisions related to our national forests. So far none have had sufficient agreement to be included. But with a March 23rd deadline for a must-pass Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which is likely to be the last big thing Congress does before the November 2018 elections, forest-related negotiations are occurring right now. That’s why I spent last week in D.C.
The main thing driving Congressional attention is the need to fix how the Forest Service pays for fighting wildfire. Over half of the agency’s expenses now relate to fire-fighting! To cover the costs, the Forest Service “borrows” money for its other accounts (e.g., recreation, wildlife, even forest restoration work meant to reduce fire risks), thereby starving those functions until Congress gets around to appropriating money to pay the agency back.
For several years there have been good bi-partisan bills to fix wildfire funding, which we’ve typically supported as part of our advocacy for forest restoration that focuses on selective thinning, prescribed burning, and greater fire preparedness. However, House Republicans have held this sensible legislation hostage, trying to get a ransom that would shortcut environmental process and protections on timber sales. Even worse, Senator Murkowski, who chairs both the authorizing and appropriations committees with this jurisdiction, has wanted a ransom that would drop protection of old growth and roadless areas in Alaska’s national forests, potentially setting a concerning precedent for roadless protections elsewhere. Meanwhile, Senator Cantwell, who (as ranking minority member of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee) is the leading Democrat involved in the process, has refused to sign off on such provisions while also trying to include her Pine Pilot, a bill we support that would facilitate projects to try to restore the driest forests in the West.
There have been moments over the past week when it looked promising that a deal would be reached to fix wildfire funding without harming Alaska’s forests or even much changing the environmental process for most timber projects in even the driest forests. But at this writing, mere hours before the deadline, no deal has yet been reached.
It’s worth noting that the Trump Administration’s budget proposal included nefarious implications for the Forest Service. But that’s irrelevant, as Congress largely ignored the Trump budget. What matters are the laws, including appropriation acts, that Congress passes. And so far, so good.