July and August will be hot in Washington, D.C., for federal forests. The U.S. House of Representatives passed their version of the Farm Bill (H.R. 2) in a close, rancorous partisan vote of 213–211. Washington’s delegation voted along party lines with Olympic Peninsula Reps. Kilmer voting against and Herrera Beutler for the bill.
The House version included provisions for federal forests that weakened environmental protections. The Forestry title would allow unprecedented increases in categorical exclusions from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and analysis for parcels up to 6,000 acres for several management activities (wildfire risk, hazardous fuels reduction, forest restoration, forest infrastructure projects, special use permits). “Collaborative” projects not already excluded from environmental review would require only two alternatives to be analyzed—the “no action” and proposed action—rather than reasonable alternatives to protect the environment and mitigate harm.
Without NEPA review, the scope and scale of harvest activities will not be evaluated by the public to ensure that the project does not harm the environment. The bill also sets limits on courts for injunctive relief. The bill abolishes the “Roadless Rule” protections for all national lands systems in Alaska. The bill establishes NEPA categorical exclusions for a “pilot project” for all lands in Lincoln, Cibola and Gila National Forests in New Mexico, and establishes arbitration for dispute resolution. In conference with the Senate, these provisions will be open to change.
The Senate Farm Bill was drafted and passed in a bipartisan effort with a vote of 86 to 11 and contained none of the environmental protection rollbacks found in the House bill.
The Senate and House will go into conference on the Farm Bill after the July recess to come to agreement. The agreed bill will go back to each chamber for passage, and then to the president in September. The Farm Bill provisions will set policy for federal forests until 2023. There will be advocacy opportunities in July and August on the Farm Bill to ensure that strong protections for our federal forests are in place for the next five years. Be ready to contact your elected officials and to pass on action alerts to friends, colleagues and families in other states as the action unfolds this summer.