MEMO: House Farm Bill Stifles the Public and Promotes Clear-Cutting of America’s Wild National Forests

May 9, 2018

To: Editorial Writers, Reporters and Columnists      

From: The Wilderness Society

Date: May 9, 2018

Just weeks ago, Congress passed the widely bipartisan FY18 omnibus appropriations bill, which rejected riders to undermine protections for roadless national forests and included a bipartisan wildfire funding fix combined with several forest management provisions demanded by pro-logging Republicans.

Unfortunately, before the ink is even dry on the omnibus, Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee released their draft of the House farm bill, H.R. 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018. This bill is replete with attacks on bedrock environmental laws and would renege on the bipartisan wildfire budget deal by doubling down on hardline proposals to severely weaken protections on America’s national forests.

On April 18, 2018, the House Agriculture Committee passed H.R. 2 on a party line vote. Although much of the debate focused on detrimental changes to nutrition programs, this partisan process has also resulted in one of the most extreme and controversial farm bill forestry titles (Title VIII) in recent memory. Many of the federal forestry provisions have been taken straight from H.R. 2936, the so-called Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, sponsored by Representative Bruce Westerman (R-AR).

The Westerman bill provisions have been strongly pushed by House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), known for his anti-public lands agenda. Other influential lawmakers in the public lands arena, including Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Steve Daines (R-MT), have said they will be looking for opportunities to push attacks on the Roadless Rule and other changes to forest management.

An attack on the Roadless Rule is an attack on our wild forests

In 2001, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (Roadless Rule) protected 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest from logging and costly road building. The House farm bill includes language taken straight from the Westerman bill that overrides the Roadless Rule by allowing logging operations, including harmful post-fire logging, within inventoried roadless areas.

If these harmful exemptions are allowed, industrial scale development could contaminate drinking water – over 500 municipal watersheds originate in roadless areas around the country. We could see countless recreation opportunities diminished, and local businesses that thrive on tourism around beautiful forest landscapes would be negatively impacted. Aggressively logging roadless areas puts an already stressed forest – adapting to climate change – at risk of more intense and longer-burning fires.

When a Categorical Exclusion Becomes a Congressional Exemption

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires public input and environmental review for many federal actions. NEPA reviews typically come in three forms, the least thorough of which is a Categorical Exclusion (CE). CEs are typically created administratively for actions with impacts that are not individually or cumulatively significant. The Forest Service already has over three dozen CEs to expedite environmentally insignificant projects.

In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress co-opted CEs by including a 3,000-acre Congressional Exemption for insect and disease treatment. Since then, this has become the preferred tool for those seeking forest management reforms as it allows projects to move ahead with very little analysis and public involvement.

The problem is that, when the Forest Service creates a CE, the agency goes through an extensive public rulemaking and fact-finding exercise to formally determine that the activities will not cause significant impacts. When Congress creates a CE, it simply declares that the activities have no impact. Hence, no one should confuse a Congressional Exemption with a Forest Service Categorical Exclusion; the former may in fact cause significant environmental harm to resources Americans care about -- like wildlife, clean drinking water, and outdoor recreation -- with little that anyone can do about it. 

The House farm bill creates Congressional Exemptions for 46 activities. Many can be used for logging projects up to 6,000-acres – nearly 10 square miles. Plus, the bill expands the recently enacted Omnibus CE for hazardous fuels from 3,000 to 6,000 acres. The Forest Service hasn’t even had time to use its new Omnibus authorities, yet Congress is doubling down by widely expanding the types of activities that can be conducted without environmental and public review.

Looking down the road

The House is expected to vote on H.R. 2 in mid-May, and the Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to release a draft farm bill later in the month.

We urge you to write about how the House Farm Bill undermines bedrock environmental laws and threatens America's national forests. This legislation is yet another attack on our public lands that represents partisan, special interest politics at its worst. 

 

For more detailed background information on the forestry title of the farm bill, please see our analysis memo.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION: To speak with The Wilderness Society about threats to the Roadless Rule and the values of our wild forests, please contact Megan Birzell, National Forest Defense Campaign Manager, megan_birzell@tws.org, (206) 348-3597 or Anastasia Greene, Regional Communications Manager, agreene@tws.org, 540-207-3162.