Federal forestry is an integral part of the survival of the hardwood industry and has been a top priority for the Hardwood Federation for a number of years. The National Forest System, once a consistent source of fiber for the industry, has reduced timber harvest sales from 10 to 12 billion board feet (BBF) each year from the 1950s through the mid-1990s, to as low as two BBF in recent years. Although output has increased in the past few years, harvest levels are still less than the 6.2 BBF called for in National Forest plans.
In addition, increasing numbers and intensity of forest fires have drained resources from timber harvests, wildlife management, and recreational programs, consuming more than 50 percent of the Federal Forest Service’s budget each year.
After many Congressional sessions of chipping away at the issue and supporting multiple bills and initiatives, it seems that real action is finally being taken to address these issues as part of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 Omnibus Spending Bill passed by Congress and signed by the president in the first days of spring. (A spending bill spanning multiple budget areas is known as an Omnibus.)
In late March, the U.S. House passed an FY 2018 $1.3 trillion Omnibus spending package totaling 2,232 pages. The Senate soon followed. The Hardwood Federation actively joined our industry allies to advocate the inclusion of measures to address forest management and fire funding in the final bill language. After many years of hard work by all, the measures were maintained and signed into law.
The cost and scope of this spending bill is the subject of much debate. And depending on priorities, there is cause for celebration or lamentation. However, in terms of management of federal lands, we are pleased and are finally chalking up a win after several years of frustration. The forestry reforms included in the Omnibus are as follows:
- The package establishes a fund of more than $2 billion a year, which will increase over a 10-year period. The fund may be accessed by the Forest Service when wildfire suppression costs exceed the 10-year average cost of wildfires, which are frozen at the 2015 level. Specifically, disaster levels ramp up from $2.25 billion in FY 2020 to $2.95 billion in FY 2027.
- Because this provision does not take effect until 2020, current law will remain in effect through 2019.
- A new categorical exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is established for hazardous fuels reduction on areas up to 3,000 acres. The deal also opens the way to more 20-year stewardship contracts, in which the Forest Service collaborates with states on forest management projects. Additionally, these new contracts will give preference to contractors that promote innovative use of wood products, including cross-laminated timber.
- A simplified process for repairing and rebuilding access roads in some areas of national forests is established.
- The agreement also includes language to limit the effect of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2015 ruling in Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. Forest Service. That case forced the Forest Service to consult more closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service on forest projects that might affect endangered species.
While these provisions are not perfect and do not represent everything that the forest products industry would want in a reform measure, the final package is a product of negotiation and compromise, and we feel that this package represents considerable progress. The Hardwood Federation members and your team here in Washington worked hard on this issue, which has become a national crisis during the last couple of years. Our industry was particularly effective in helping frame the issue as one that goes well beyond forest fires in the west and drawing attention to the threats of disease and insect infestation on overstocked forests in the Lake States and eastern portions of the country.
As with most things in Washington, D.C., this is not the end of the fight…rather it is a win for the day. We will continue to work on behalf of the industry for future improvements to the federal lands that will benefit both the health of the forests as well as the health of our industry.
Dana Lee Cole is Executive Director at the Hardwood Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based hardwood industry trade association that represents thousands of hardwood businesses in every state in the U.S. and acts as the industry’s advocacy voice on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.