Republican U.S. Representative Bruce Westerman’s bill to revamp the management of federal forests is moving its way through Congress. The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 passed the House last year 262-167, largely along partisan lines, and this week was approved by the U.S. Senate Agriculture committee.
It was also recently incorporated into a larger energy bill under consideration in Congress. Westerman, who represents Arkansas’s fourth district, says it is possible that one of the competing versions could clear both chambers after the November election.
“Anything you do in Congress is slow and painstaking and it sure has taken a long time to get a hearing on the bill in the Senate. But we’ve been working with them and they’ve kept the main points of the bill that I got passed out of the House,” Westerman says.
The Senate Agriculture committee voted 11-9 to pass the bill on Tuesday. But it struck a controversial provision of the original bill that would have required an entity challenging a forestry project in federal court to post a bond on legal expenses incurred by the U.S. Forest Service.
Westerman is part of the House and Senate conference committee working on a more encompassing energy bill, which includes the forestry bill’s language. The Arkansas lawmaker is the only member of Congress with a graduate degree in forestry. He earned it at Yale.
Westerman’s legislation reduces some regulatory measures and allows forestry officials to opt out of certain environmental studies now required before federal forestry projects can begin.
One provision would establish a process for declaring wildfires as “major disaster areas,” allowing federal emergency management funds to go toward fighting the fires. Westerman says this will allow forestry officials to devote more funds to management practices.
“[It] really addresses what’s wrong with the forests right now. They really have not been managed and we’re seeing an increase in wildfires as the amount of management has decreased. So as all that money flows to the west to fight fires, it hurts forests in the east and in Arkansas, because it depletes funds that could be used to manage those forests,” he says.
Environmental groups have criticized the legislation for seeking to remove certain regulatory hurdles currently required before forestry projects are carried out. In a blog post last year, the Sierra Club called the House version of the bill “nothing more than a buffet for the timber industry.”