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The Resilient Forests Act: a Trojan Horse to Accelerate Logging on Public Lands

We live in an age of Orwellian Doublespeak. Such doublespeak is exemplified by the euphemistically named “Resilient Federal Forests Act” (RFFA) sponsored by Rep. Westerman. Like previous versions, Westerman asserts RFFA will reduce massive wildfires and smoke, and promote more “resilient” forests.

In the name of fire reduction, RFFA is a Trojan Horse designed to expedite logging under the pretext of “reducing wildfires.” The flawed assumption behind this legislation is that fuels are driving large wildfires.  However, numerous studies have found that extreme fire weather, not fuels, is mainly responsible for large blazes. The topography is also a factor: fires burn faster upslope.

As the Bush era Clear Sky Act which was promoted as a way to “streamline” environmental laws to provide regulatory relief to the industries while allowing more air pollution, the “Resilient Federal Forest Act is a timber industry supported bill that eliminates nearly all environmental protections for our public forests.

Among other components, the RFFA would allow the Forest Service to log up to 30,000 acres using categorical exclusion rules that override the normal environmental review process. Keep in mind a football field is about an acre. Thus, Westerman’s bill would allow logging an area the size of 30,000 football fields without any environmental assessment.

Worse for our forests, there is no limit on how many times this categorical exclusion can be used. Therefore, you could have one 30,000-acre logging project immediately adjacent to another, greatly enhancing the environmental destruction.

Westerman’s legislation specifically demands logging a minimum of 500 million board feet of timber annually from the Oregon and California (O and C) lands in southern Oregon. One logging truck holds between 12,000 and 20,000 board feet of timber—you do the math.

The bill would remove the prohibition on logging eastside Cascade trees 21 inches or greater. Most ecologists will acknowledge that the preservation of large trees is key to maintaining forest resilience.

The legislation would promote so-called “salvage” logging after a blaze which eliminates the snag forests which possess the second highest biodiversity after old growth forests.

Westerman relies on logging advocates like The Nature Conservancy to justify the “science” behind his legislation, yet many fire ecologists have concluded that logging is ineffective and inefficient at reducing large blazes.

A review paper by scientists at the Forest Service Missoula Fire Lab summarized that: “Extreme environmental conditions. . . overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects. . . This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning. . .. Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.”

Last fall more than 200 preeminent scientists signed a letter to Congress finding that proposed solutions to wildfire like thinning forests are ineffective and short-lived.

To quote from the scientists’ letter: “Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity…However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days.”

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported: “From a quantitative perspective, the CRS study indicates a very weak relationship between acres logged and the extent and severity of forest fires. … the data indicate that fewer acres burned in areas where logging activity was limited.”

Another recent 2016 study looked at 1500 wildfires across the West and found the highest severity burns were in forests under “active management” while protected areas like parks and wilderness where logging is prohibited had the least acres of high severity burns.

Worse for those wanting to reduce large wildfires, logging/thinning increases CO2 emissions, one of the significant factors contributing to global warming. Logging is the biggest contributor to Oregon’s CO2 emissions.

The results of a study of thinning vs. wildfire found: “Thinning forests to reduce potential carbon losses due to wildfire is in direct conflict with carbon sequestration goals.”

Carbon released from logging is far higher than emissions released through natural fire. The idea that converting forests into wood products stores carbon is misleading. Only 15% of the carbon stored in a live tree is stored in the final wood product. By contrast, after a forest fire, most carbon remains on site as snags and down wood which store it for decades.

Another study concluded: “Our review reveals high C losses associated with fuel treatment, only modest differences in the combustive losses associated with high-severity fire … and a low likelihood that treated forests will be exposed to fire.”

Similar conclusions were voiced by researchers who wrote: “we find that thinning existing forests to reduce crown-fire risk increases net carbon emissions to the atmosphere for many decades… “

The bill bans reimbursement of attorney fees. This is effectively a reversal of the legal tradition of awarding reasonable attorney fees to anyone who wins a court case. This statutory change favors large corporations with deep pockets who can afford to bring lawsuits without compensation but penalizes individuals and small environmental groups with limited funds.

There are two things that Congress could do if he genuinely wanted to reduce the impacts of large wildfires. First, support legislation to reduce climate warming. Climate change is driving large fires, and without serious measures to reduce CO2 emissions from all human sources, including logging, we will continue to see large blazes.

The second thing that Congress could do is focus on reducing the flammability of homes. Wildfires are inevitable, but home losses are not. The emphasis should be on reducing the flammability of homes and communities, not logging the forest.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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