Republican Congressman Bruce Westerman's first piece of major legislation is to go up for a final vote Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives.
KUAR's Chris Hickey has a look at what the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 would do and why it came about.
Westerman has a background in forestry, having received a Master's Degree in the subject from Yale University. So it goes that Westerman turned his Congressional attention to a bill affecting management of forests on federal land.
“This is a fairly large pieve of legislation that affects every bit of timber owned by the federal government owned by national forests and the bureau of land management. It sets management policies for all of the federally-owned timber across the country. To put that in perspective...in the Fourth District of Arkansas we have about two and a half million acres of federally-owned timber,” he says.
The U.S. Forest Service currently engages in a public comment process for carrying out its plans. Those stakeholders discuss everything from timber harvests, to recreational uses, to soil and water conservation. But Westerman says the federal agency often finds its proposed programs stalled by frivolous lawsuits.
“Somebody from a totally different area, even a different state, can file a suit in federal court to hold up this management plan.”
He says while legal deliberations abound, forests are left unattended. “It continues to grow. It gets overstocked. You get insects and disease infestation. You get increased fuel loads. Lightning strikes and you have a catastrophic wildfire.”
Westerman contends his legislation encourages more preventative fire maintenance and better controls invasive insects and disease by requiring those who file lawsuits to post a bond to cover the federal agency's legal expenses. If the plaintiffs win, they can get their money back. It would also do away with the right to seek preliminary injunctions or temporary restraining orders against forestry plans.
For Glen Hooks, Director of the Arkansas Sierra Club, the bill overly restricts the ability to pursue challenges in court, something he says is a helpful check on the agency's authority.
“If we think that they're not following the law. If we think they're doing a burn that's outside the published limits, if they're doing timber harvests that are illegal...then if we can convince a judge that there's at least a chance that we are correct, then they will halt those operations until the facts can be found. That's a really important ability,” Hooks says.
Having to post a bond would be a prohibitive expense in many cases, he says. So without the option of preliminary injunctions or restraining orders, Hooks says a case could still be won, but the Forest Service could still have carried out its plans in the interim.
“And if our allegations turn out to be correct, the damage is already done. So these kind of tools are really important to protecting our national forests,” he says.
But supporters of Westerman's bill, like Joe Fox of the Arkansas Forestry Commission say the federal agency's plans are typically well-vetted.
“The forest management plans in place are based on very good, sound science,” he says. “There are a small contingent of citizens that do not want forests touched by human hands for any reason. And I think that's very shortsighted, but that's generally where the lawsuits come from.”
Fox says it's possible that some future valid lawsuits may be discouraged if the bill becomes law, but he sees the threat of wildfire, particularly in the western United States as being a much greater concern. Westerman says he has a bipartisan group of lawmakers and wildlife groups behind the bill. If the bill passes the House, it will still have to go through a round of committee hearings and possible revisions in the U.S. Senate.