Washington, D.C. – This morning, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would allow intensive development across hundreds of thousands of acres in the Los Padres National Forest and other national forests across the country. The bill would also exempt this development from long-standing environmental protection laws, reduce opportunities for public input, and limit the amount of watershed restoration activities that could occur on national forest lands.
The bill – deceptively named the “Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act” (H.R. 1526) – passed the House on a vote of 244-173. Among the most controversial provisions, the bill would:
- Require the U.S. Forest Service to designate “Forest Reserve Revenue Areas” on every national forest within 60 days, which must automatically include “all National Forest System lands identified as commercial forest land capable of producing twenty cubic feet of timber per acre.” This unprecedently low bar would cover tens of thousands of acres of the Los Padres National Forest, where no commercial timber sales have been conducted in decades due to steep terrain, wildlife, and watershed protection concerns.
- Mandates that the Forest Service remove 50% of the sustained timber yield of each Revenue Area for the financial benefit of local “beneficiary” counties – resulting in widespread clear-cuts and other intensive logging of our national forests. The Forest Service would be forced to drain its budget to achieve these mandated logging levels, at the expense of important programs like recreation, trail maintenance, law enforcement, wildfire prevention, and wildlife protection.
- Limits the public’s ability to review and comment on logging projects before they are approved in Revenue Areas. The bill would exclude from notice and environmental review all projects covering 10,000 acres or less, and limits the public’s right to file administrative appeals. It would also preclude almost all judicial review by requiring citizens and groups to post an up-front bond covering all estimated costs and attorney fees.
- Authorizes Governors to designate “high-risk areas” of federal land based on current or future risk of fire, insects, drought, and undefined “deteriorating forest health conditions.” Once areas are designated, Governors may develop “fuels reduction” or “forest health” projects that are broadly defined to include logging, chaparral clearing, commercial livestock grazing, and other activities that could impair water quality, degrade wildlife habitat, and increase the spread of flammable, invasive weeds.
- Authorizes the transfer of federal management of National Forest lands to locally-controlled and state-appointed boards. Although national forests are currently managed for a broad spectrum of interests, under this bill, areas would be managed to serve a limited number of local economic interests. The state-appointed boards would consist of timber, grazing, and recreational/off-road vehicle interests. The boards could request that the Forest Service establish “Community Forest Demonstration Areas” across any national forest lands, except formally-designated wilderness areas. The sole purpose of these lands would be to generate revenue for counties and local governments. The boards would not have to consult with the U.S. Forest Service before initiating any projects or activities in these areas. Up to 2 million acres of national forest system lands nationwide may managed this way.
- Exempts projects in Revenue Areas, High Risk Areas, and Demonstration Areas from longstanding environmental protection laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, and any other applicable laws.
- Applies to all national forest lands except for formally-designated wilderness areas. Revenue Areas, High Risk Areas, and Demonstration Areas could be designated in roadless areas that are currently protected under the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (including 51 Inventoried Roadless Areas spanning over 630,000 acres in Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Kern, and Monterey counties.) Other conservation lands could also be slated for development under the bill, including Research Natural Areas, Botanical Areas, or Special Interest Areas. The bill does not exempt areas that the Forest Service has formally recommended for wilderness designation – including large swaths of land in the Santa Barbara and Ventura backcountry.
- Overturns a recent Forest Service rule allowing unnecessary or redundant forest roads to be decommissioned for purposes of watershed protection or habitat restoration. The current Forest Service rule would streamline these activities. Other amendments to the bill approved this morning include prohibiting judicial review of commercial “salvage” timber sales in fragile burn areas that are just now beginning to recover from the 2013 wildfire season.
Conservation groups have strongly opposed the bill, calling it the “Forest Destruction Act” and warning that it would eviscerate bedrock environmental laws.
“This egregious bill is a direct assault on the Los Padres National Forest and all public lands across the country,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch. “It gives away thousands of acres of public forestlands to private commercial interests at the expense of clean water, healthy wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation opportunities.”
The legislation must still be approved by the Senate, and signed by the President, before becoming law. It is currently unknown how many of the bill’s provisions will be modified or dropped in the Senate. In a statement released earlier this week, President Obama stated his intent to veto the bill in its current form.