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How Congress is Undermining America’s Environmental Legacy

The U.S. Congress is whittling away America’s proud legacy of environmental protection. Legislation signed by President Obama, the 2014 Appropriations Act and the Farm Bill, marked an unsettling trend of weakening environmental protections and public oversight. Richard Nixon, an improbable conservation champion, signed these bedrock safeguards into law, but legislation continues to sneak its way through Congress seeking to undermine guarantees of government transparency and our right to a healthy environment.

The 2014 Appropriations Act, for example, constricts the right of citizens, the owners of our national public lands, to be notified of and to challenge the decisions of federal land management agencies. Specifically, Congress exempted projects approved through categorical exclusions from the normal public involvement process, leaving citizens to challenge these actions in federal court as the only option to stop harmful projects. By restricting our participation in Forest Service decisions, the National Environmental Policy Act is severely undermined.

The Farm Bill of 2014 created yet another exclusion from environmental analysis and public oversight; this time to log forests with insect and disease epidemics; up to 3,000 acres at a time! All forests have areas with natural insect pests and pathogens, but now logging them is exempt from environmental review and citizen objections. Citizens must, again, go immediately to federal court to challenge these actions. Another section of the Farm Bill provides $200 million dollars over the next 10 years to identify and log areas deemed in “declining health,” an absurdly broad term.

As bad as these new loopholes are, they come as no surprise. Phrases like “catastrophic wildfire” and “insect epidemics” have shaped forest policy for over a decade, creating a presumption that something must be done or we will lose our forests. This hyper-inflated rhetoric has found a home in Congress with the predictable result:  bills that purport to “restore” our public forests through logging mandates and suspension of our country’s principal environmental laws.

Examples of this disturbing trend are plentiful. Senator Barrasso’s (R-WY) Orwellian “National Forest Jobs and Management Act,” would mandate logging, curtail environmental analysis and side step the courts. Representative Daines’ (R-MT) “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act” would establish similar mandates with the added insult of removing safeguards provided by the Endangered Species Act. Senator Wyden’s (D-OR) “Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection, and Jobs Act of 2013,” and Senator Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act,” both include similar mandated logging provisions. It is the responsibility of the experts in the land management agencies to set management and restoration priorities based on science, not members of Congress.

In fact, “restoration” has often become a euphemism for logging, contrary to a growing body of science that undermines this rhetoric. After the sensationalized stories about last summer’s wildfire in Yosemite National Park, roughly 200 scientists signed a letter to Congress opposing a bill that would expedite post-fire logging in the national park and other burned areas. While the effects of logging on wildfire risk remain uncertain at best, we know the outcome of increased logging on forest resources: more loss of wildlife, damage to soils and pollution in our streams. Most recently a Montana University entomologist reviewed projects using logging as a tool to combat pine-beetles and found no evidence to support the practice.

Congress is disconnected from the science of forest management but is asserting itself from a place of political hyperbole. What we need now is less showboating from our elected officials, and more acknowledgements that wildfire, insects and disease are natural processes that have been undervalued for their ecological benefits. By circumventing environmental analysis and public oversight Congress ensures more lawsuits while eroding decades of ecological wisdom. It’s time that our elected officials let the appointed experts manage our forests and stop chipping away at America’s rich legacy of environmental protection.

Adam Rissien serves as the Northern Rockies Conservation Manager in Missoula, MT as part of WildEarth Guardians’ Wild Places Program. 

Bryan Bird is the Wild Places Director based out of the WildEarth Guardians home office in Santa Fe, NM.

This essay originally appeared in the Missoulian.

 

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