Far-Reaching Forest Law Faces Overhaul
Don’t cry for the Endangered Species Act.
Even if the politically tattered savior of bald eagles and grizzly bears is dumped, it will mean much less to the Western landscape than the fate of a lesser known and more potent law that Congress is quietly revisiting.
The National Forest Management Act is the real reason the spotted owl stopped old growth logging in the Pacific Northwest. As the owl case flitted through the courts, the act elicited amazement from a federal appeals court judge who, like much of the public, assumed no law did more for critters than the Endangered Species Act.
Because it is so far-reaching, and because Congress is in a mood to tinker with environmental laws, the National Forest Management Act soon will become the focus of Western lawmakers such as U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.
The measure grew out of a 1976 effort to give the Forest Service legal authority to clearcut, after the agency lost court cases over 70 years of illegally logging large sections of public ground.
By the time the Forest Management Act became law, it included much more than the right to clearcut public land.
It is best known for requiring long-term forest planning - a local decision-making tool to some, a bureaucratic nightmare to others.
Environmentalists and industry advocates have spent most of their time wrestling over forest plans. So, much of the law remains virtually unused and untested by the courts, said Paul Hirt, a Washington State University historian, who probes the causes of current national forest problems in a book called “A Conspiracy of Optimism.”
As a result, the measure “is a very powerful and very complex piece of legislation whose potential is only being tapped,” Hirt said.
As people talk about overhauling the law, “I think the stakes are higher than we even recognize.”
The measure set higher standards for protecting fish and wildlife than the Endangered Species Act. The ESA only provides resuscitation for animals on the brink of extinction. The Forest Management Act requires keeping healthy populations of most national forest creatures.
The Forest Management Act says we should not cut timber faster than it grows. It calls for soil specialists, wildlife biologists and other kinds of scientists to help make decisions on national forests. Before, that was the select purview of engineers and foresters, Hirt said.
The law also requires that less productive land not be logged, effectively reducing the amount of timber that can be taken from public lands. That has sparked several battles as the forest products industry ran out of trees on its own ground and turned to the national forests.
Some argue the act’s protection of scrawnier timberlands continues to be unpopular because the supply of public trees also is running low on the most fertile federal land. “All of the good stuff on the forests has already been taken, so they are turning more to the marginal lands,” Hirt said.
The Forest Management Act also packs more power in the Western United States, where the bulk of the land is publicly owned, “because the Endangered Species Act is remarkably unenforced. … it’s been a toothless tiger,” said Andy Stahl. Stahl is a former timber industry lobbyist who directs the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
The act may be overhauled long before its potential for promise or problems - depending upon your perspective - is tested. Craig announced last spring it was one of several laws he was scrutinizing.
As chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management, Craig has held several related hearings.
He introduced a forest health bill that will streamline sales of trees that the timber industry sees as unhealthy.
A major rewrite of the Forest Management Act likely will follow this winter, a Craig staffer says.
“You can’t not talk about the National Forest Management Act if you are intent on improving forest health,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association. “It’s such a far-reaching statute, with such far-reaching implications.”
Two decades after the act has passed, it’s time to fix what’s not working, including the mandates for forest planning, Popovich said.
Ken Kohli of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association agrees. The Forest Management Act is part of a complex catalog of land management laws that are cumbersome and defy efforts at sensible management of both public land and of sensitive species, he said.
“They need to be bottled up in one law rather than scattered throughout the entire cupboard of federal legislation,” Kohli said.
Bob Wolf, a forester who worked for the Congressional Research Service, helped draft the act.
He predicts that industry will target provisions that “say you’re not supposed to cut timber faster than it grows” as well as the clause that keeps chain saws off marginal lands.
“The industry never liked it and the Forest Service never liked it,” he said.
Trying to revamp those portions of the law, however, boils down to “some senator trying to write a law that overturns the laws of nature,” Wolf said.