By Bill Imbergamo, FFRC Executive Director. Vilsack Pressed on Forestry At Senate Confirmation Hearing: Secretary of Agriculture nominee Tom Vilsack, who is auditioning for a second stint in that role, was pressed on forest management issues in his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, February 2nd (Groundhog Day, oddly enough). Unsurprisingly, the Committee focused on row crop and livestock agriculture, although forest management and climate change also came up during the hearing. Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith (R-MS) raised the need for “growing markets for wood products” through mass timber, and noted that timber creates jobs while providing jobs in rural areas, along with clean water, wildlife, and recreation. Vilsack said he would focus on “USDA’s own procurement policies” and would seek to “incent, encourage, and educate people about the use of Cross Laminated Timber.” He noted that “there are potentially biomass opportunities in terms of energy production,” and added that “the challenge here is, we want to be able to figure out how to use this wood, we want to preserve the carbon that is in the wood…” but, “as we know we’ve had horrific wildfires. To the extent that we can better manage our forests, better provide opportunities for markets, we can reduce that risk of forest fires, and we can keep that carbon stored for a lot longer.” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) called National Forests “an essential part of our infrastructure” in providing water to cities and “powering our recreation industry.” He compared the National Forests to the Lincoln Tunnel in New York (OK…). He said they provide some of the “best carbon capture systems that exist.” He touted his $60 billion Outdoor Recovery bill as a solution. Attributing fires to climate change, Bennet asked Vilsack about the Biden Administration’s priorities for the National Forests. Vilsack agreed with the characterization of forests as critical infrastructure and added that “I would hope, as Congress deals with infrastructure issues, and decides to commit
significant resources to rebuilding the infrastructure of this country… that they include forests in that conversation.” He also called for “more effectively” using the fire funding fix to manage forests.
Vilsack’s nomination is expected to move to a floor vote in the Senate as early as next week.
Power Sharing Deal in Place, Senate Committees Begin Taking Shape: The Democrats and Republicans in the Senate this week finally settled on a power sharing arrangement – necessitated by the 50-50 split in the membership – which has allowed Committees to hold organizing meetings. New members from both parties joined key committee this week.
At the Senate Agriculture Committee, Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) announced that Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and freshman Senators Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) would join the committee. Republicans added freshmen Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS) to the Agriculture panel. Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) has assumed the Ranking Member role.
Over at the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) assumes the chairmanship. Freshmen Senators John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Mark Kelly (D-AZ) join the panel in the Majority. With Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) term limited out, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) assumes the ranking member role, with Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas joining the Republican roster.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, where the Chairman and Ranking Member are a combined 166 years old, has not moved quite as fast to name the Committee roster.
Forest Service Halts NEPA Work on Some Projects Pending Department Review: Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture Chris French Monday sent a memo to Chief Christiansen instructing the Forest Service to defer approvals on certain types of action on certain areas of the National Forests, pending a review by the USDA. The memo only applies to pending actions that are still undergoing NEPA analysis that would lead to:
Activities in Wilderness Areas
Activities in Inventoried Roadless Areas
Special use authorizations for new energy infrastructure
New mineral leases of more than 500 acres
The use of a Categorical Exclusion to harvest timber on more than3,000 acres.
Final decisions on Revised or significantly amended Forest Plans.
It does NOT APPLY to actions with completed NEPA statements and certainly and SHOULD NOT result in suspension of work on any existing timber sales anywhere throughout the National Forest System. This is significantly more targeted than the sweeping “secretarial order” issued by the Interior Department halting any approvals of new projects that could lead to “ground disturbing activities” on BLM ground. That ill-thought through action led to an immediate lawsuit from the oil and gas industry.
“As we understand this order, it should have no impact on existing timber sales, nor should it lead to unnecessary delays in NEPA processes that do not fit the above categories,” said Bill Imbergamo, FFRC Executive Director. Susan Jane Brown from the Western Environmental Law Center told Greenwire that she hoped the Forest Service would also review any “timber sales in mature and old growth forests.”
Colorado Gov. Asks Biden to Keep BLM in Colorado: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) this week urged President Biden not to uproot the Bureau of Land Management's headquarters from his state, warning that returning the offices to Washington could compound the agency's heavy staff loses. In a letter to Biden, Polis called the Trump Administration’s decision to move the office “rushed,” but said "I implore you to think of this as an opportunity for better communication, better policy and better government, rather than just associating this with the many other misguided legacies of your predecessor.”
Interior Department officials last week said only 41 of the 328 positions reassigned to Grand Junction had moved, with the other 287 opting to either retire or find new jobs between July 2019 and December 2020. Polis said shifting BLM's top office back to Washington could result in further job losses, saying more than 100 employees and their families now reside in the Grand Junction area. "To turn around now would undoubtedly compound the problem and lead to similar levels of staff defections and retirements as was
experienced under the flawed implementation of this effort by the previous administration," Polis wrote.
The State’s two Democratic Senators, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, support keeping the office in Grand Junction. E&E News reported last week that Biden Interior and White House officials believe they could re-hire many of the staff who left BLM but are still in the Washington, DC area, if they moved the headquarters office back quickly.
Polling Indicates Stronger Support for Removing Fuel Than Further Land Set Asides: A poll of voters in the mountain west (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana) found 94 percent support “Increasing efforts to remove overgrown brush and selected or dead trees on public lands,” but that 77 percent support “Setting a national goal of conserving thirty percent of land and inland waters in America, and
thirty percent of its ocean areas by the year 2030.” Someone needs to tell them that the way some in the Biden Administration are defining “Conservation” would make achieving the first goal impossible.
Budget Reconciliation Lays Groundwork for Large Stimulus May Not Include Forest Service Recovery: The Congress is poised to move through the $1.6 Trillion COVID-19 “Rescue” package sought by President Biden, and they are doing it through the “Budget Reconciliation” process that will allow them to pass it with Democrat only votes. The bill allows Committees to boost mandatory spending for the next 10-years but provides very little in the way of new spending authority for the Energy & Natural Resources Committee. The funds made available for the Agriculture Committees are intended to boost food aid and aid to farmers. The Administration apparently will support a second “infrastructure” reconciliation package that may provide an opportunity to boost funds for the Forest Service to recover from the 2020 wildfires and begin addressing the restoration backlog on the National Forests.
Remember, Time to Support ESA Streamlining is Running Out: You’ve only got till next Thursday, February 11th to file comments on behalf of the proposed streamlining of interagency cooperation for Endangered Species consultations. This proposal would eliminate unnecessary, forest plan level
consultations which have stymied multiple projects due to a flawed Supreme Court decision.