February 26, 2016
When President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, our government made a commitment to manage the land for multiple use to sustain local communities with timber, grazing, hunting, water and other resources.
That promise has been broken. Timber harvests are down 80 percent over the last 30 years. Since 1990, more than 400 mills have closed and more than 35,000 workers cut loose. Many of those shuttered mills and lost jobs are in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District.
Federal mismanagement has contributed to a rise in catastrophic wildfire. The 2015 fire season saw a record 10.1 million acres scorched nationwide. In Idaho, over 750,000 acres burned, damaging grazing lands, claiming more than 80 homes and harming habitat valuable to wildlife and recreation.
The Forest Service knows it needs help.
In a 2002 internal report, “The Process Predicament,” the agency said: “The Forest Service is so busy meeting procedural requirements, such as preparing voluminous plans, studies, and associated documentation, that it has trouble fulfilling its historic mission to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”
Thanks to the creativity of commissioners from five counties in the 1st District – Boundary, Clearwater, Idaho, Shoshone and Valley – I have a bill to help. Commissioners approached me in 2011 with a great idea: Gives states and localities a chance to manage a small part of the federal estate under state forestry laws to test the proposition that those closest to the land could do better.
The bill we wrote is called the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act. It would allow governors to create community forest demonstration areas totaling up to 4 million acres nationwide — about 2 percent of the National Forest system. Contrary to claims by some environmentalists, ownership would remain in federal hands and hunting, fishing and other recreational and Tribal rights are specifically protected in the bill.
The bill passed the House in the last Congress. But like many good conservative ideas, it died in a Senate then controlled by Democrats. On Thursday, H.R. 2316 had a hearing in the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands. It received a warm response from Chairman Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who said, “State management can produce healthier forests and healthier economies and this legislation offers participating states the opportunity to do so.”
Among those testifying was one of the originators of the idea, Valley County Commissioner Gordon Cruickshank. “When the national forests were created over 100 years ago, the federal government sold the idea of public ownership of forest lands by promising a steady supply of natural resources for economic stability,” he said. “I am here to say that the current federal forest management practices are not fulfilling that promise.”
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration testified against the bill. They’re opposed, even though Forest Service Acting Deputy Chief Glen Casamassa acknowledged that best management practices under state forestry laws provide for environmental protection. With the Senate now in Republican hands, I’m optimistic we can get the bill to the President.
As I travel my beautiful congressional district, there’s no doubt that federal management isn’t making good on the promise of multiple use. I talk to Forest Service officials frustrated by red tape that leaves good timber to rot and burn. They, too, would like to do a better job.
After 30 years of dysfunction, testing the hypothesis that local management can improve forest health and rural economies is long overdue.
For more on Thursday’s hearing, watch video of my testimony, Commissioner Cruickshank’s opening statement and my questions to Cruickshank and Glen Casamassa of the Forest Service. You may read the bill here.