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Federal Forest Resource Coalition Weekly Report for Friday, May 22 2020

By Bill Imbergamo, FFRC Executive Director.

Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service Propose Legislative Solution for “Cottonwood” Case: This week, the Chief of the Forest Service and the Director of the Fish & Wildlife Service acknowledged that the Cottonwood precedent, which is being used to delay needed forest management projects by forcing the two agencies to “consult” on sometimes decade old land management plans, should be addressed through legislative changes. Anti-management groups have filed cases against dozens of projects, and in much of Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona, badly needed projects are on hold.

FFRC and our allies were successful in pushing for language in the 2018 Omnibus spending bill that temporarily relieved the need to engage in consultation based on new species listings or critical habitat designations. However, environmental litigants have been winning injunctions based on the idea that “new information” (an amorphous term at best) should force additional consultation on the underlying forest plan. (Keep in mind, these projects have all been cleared by the two agencies, the Cottonwood precedent forces them to consult on the underlying forest plan, which in many cases bears little resemblance to current forest conditions or management needs).

In the letter, the two officials criticize the 2018 language because it affirms the idea that a land management plan is an ongoing action. The two services have rejected that view for years. They also discuss legislative language being negotiated in the Senate, and suggest that the language proposed “is unavailing and offers no practical benefit.”

Instead, the agencies identify a preferred legislative solution which would provide “a permanent, comprehensive solution for re-initiation of consultation on land management plans for species listings, critical habitat designations, and new information.” Basically, while general land management plans still must take into account the needs of listed species and their habitat, once the plan is adopted, consultation would only be required on proposed land management projects.

As you’ll recall, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced last summer that they would introduce forest management reform legislation, and Daines’ office has always insisted that such a bill must address the Cottonwood case. Negotiations have dragged on far longer than expected. It’s not clear whether the letter from the two agencies will break this logjam.

Fire Season Begins to Ramp Up, Agencies Will Struggle to Deploy Firefighters in Pandemic: Wildfires have begun their annual march through America’s wildlands and forests, with numerous brush and grass fires in South Florida over the last several weeks, and the desert Southwest beginning to see their spring fire season kick in.

The Forest Service suspended most prescribed burning in April, including the Southeast, where they usually burn between 800,000 and 1 million acres each year. In early May, the Forest Service resumed some prescribed burns in California. Throughout April, the Forest Service worked with their unions to develop protocols to safely deploy firefighters. Agency officials have stressed that they will rely on aggressive initial attack, including a stepped-up aviation program, to try to keep fires small and avoid the need to large fire camps. Instead of elaborate and large camps with catering and facilities, fire crews can probably expect to do more rugged, self-supported camps with MRE’s provided periodically. This is an approach frequently used on remote fires in the tundra of Alaska. It remains to be seen how it translates to the lower 48.

While wet weather has begun to return to parts of the West, the National Interagency Fire Center’s outlook for the fire season for July is ominous; Almost all of Oregon, Eastern Washington, Northern California, North Idaho, Northwest Montana, almost all of Arizona and Utah, and Southwest Colorado are expected to have “above normal” fire activity by then.

House Bill Heads for Death in Senate: As expected, the House last week passed the $3 Trillion “HEROES” act by a surprisingly tight 207 to 199, with only one GOP vote for, and 14 moderate Dems pulling the “no” lever. The bill (almost literally) doubles down on existing government relief efforts, but provided no funding for Forest management, which could help provide jobs in rural areas, which, although largely untouched by the Coronavirus, have suffered from surging unemployment and decades of poverty.

Also as expected, the Senate yawned at the passage of the House bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has continued to say that the GOP controlled Senate wants to see how the almost $4 trillion in COVID-19 emergency spending impacts the economy as states reopen. With continuing high unemployment rates and still-high numbers of new jobless claims, the politics of the “next” COVID bill could change on a dime.

We continue to believe that investing in timber sales and repair of the Forest Service’s failing road system can create meaningful, year round jobs in the frequently poor counties where the Forest Service controls much of the landscape. If you’ve not talked to your Congressional delegation, next week, both Houses will be on “recess” (although in reality much of Congress is already working remotely), so that’s a perfect time to make the ask.

Quick Hit:

Stay at Home Side Effect: Lumber Demand Boost? Stay at home “orders”, combined with continued operations at big box home centers, have conspired with curtailments at sawmills to boost lumber prices over the last month. While generic commodity lumber indices have been rising for a few weeks, they still haven’t fully recovered to the levels seen in Mid-March, before the COVID-19 outbreak caused a rapid collapse in demand.

Mt. St. Helens Reminder: Forest Management Works: This week marked the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, a cataclysm that killed 57 people and knocked flat over 150,000 acres of timber. Some of this was National Forest, some private land. Naturally, the private land was aggressively salvaged and reforested, while much of the Forest Service ground was left to recover “naturally.” As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Understanding Forest Management in 90 Seconds: Watch this.

The Week Ahead:

The House and Senate are on “recess” next week – so no Weekly Report until Friday, June 5th.


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