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Farm bill does the right things for forests

Rep. Greg Walden says he’s disappointed that provisions to allow ramped-up logging were removed from the 2018 Farm Bill, but the forestry-related measures that are in the final version that passed Wednesday will do more to address wildfire risk and smoke, and are less likely to wind up mired in court battles.

The House version of the farm bill included provisions Walden pushed for, including doubling to 6,000 acres the size of logging or fuel-reduction projects exempt from environmental review and expediting post-fire salvage logging. Those measures are popular with the timber industry because they would make it easier to log commercially valuable trees. But neither would advance the cause of reducing wildfire risk and severity, and could do more harm than good.

Expanding what’s known as the categorical exclusion — exempting certain projects from environmental review — would invite lawsuits from environmental groups, which would delay work in the forest and could eliminate projects in cases where the lawsuits were successful. One of the factors contributing to wildfire severity has been the longtime practice of clearcuts and replanting, resulting in too many trees of the same age. Expanding the categorical exclusion could encourage more of the same.

Aggressive salvage logging is a favorite cause of those who see fire-killed trees as a valuable resource that shouldn’t be “wasted.” But scientists say logging such trees damages sensitive soils, increases erosion and removes nutrients from the ecosystem, interfering with the natural process of forests recovering from fire.

Those two provisions were stripped from the bill in the Senate, but other important forest-related measures were included.

The final version that passed the House on Wednesday doubles money authorized for collaborative forest thinning projects from $40 million to $80 million. The bill also includes more funding for local governments to enter into “good neighbor” agreements with the Forest Service to help with forest restoration. And it provides grants to state foresters to promote hazardous fuel reduction projects that include federal and non-federal land, along with reauthorizing funding for Hazardous Fuels Reduction projects.

At this point, the extra money for collaborative thinning projects does not include the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy, a collaborative proposal for thinning and prescribed burning on about 1 million acres of the Rogue Basin drawn up by a coalition including the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and The Nature Conservancy, among others. It’s also not enough money by itself to do what the project’s partners propose. Treating just federal lands would require $30 million per year for 20 years, more if non-federal lands were included. Other funding could be secured, especially as the project area includes forestland managed by the BLM, which is part of the Interior Department and outside the scope of the farm bill (The Forest Service is part of the Agriculture Department).

There are 23 projects in 14 states under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, three of them in Oregon. The new farm bill extends the program through 2023 — a far cry from the 20 years the Rogue Basin project envisions. But it’s a start.

Congress should follow the farm bill by actually appropriating the money it authorizes, and the Rogue Basin Strategy deserves to be made part of the collaborative restoration program. But if reducing wildfire severity and limiting smoke are the goal, far more funding is needed.