How best to maintain the ecological health of America’s national forests is currently on Congress’s agenda in Washington, D.C. But unable to lock up the support needed for President Trump’s “healthy forests initiative” – which several environmentalist groups have labeled as a license for unlimited logging – the administration’s allies in Washington, D.C., are maneuvering to avoid public debate and get the measure passed through a legislative back-door.
That is unacceptable. As the bill that could have a considerable effect on East Texas and other forest communities, it needs to be debated thoroughly in the open.
Trump last year announced the initiative to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires. A centerpiece of the program would give forest managers more
leeway to remove the underbrush and other excess growth that fuel forest fires. To help accomplish that, the plan would allow the U.S. Forest Service to enter into “stewardship contracts” with private contractors – that is, loggers – and other organizations that would allow them “to keep wood products in exchange for the service of thinning trees and brush and removing dead wood.”
The initiative is currently being tested in 10 pilot projects in national forests, including the Boswell Creek watershed in Sam Houston National Forest.
Removing that growth can contribute to the health of a forest – as long as doing so does not at the same time hurt the environment for other vegetation and wildlife. However, determining that could be more difficult under the Trump plan, which also would reduce environmental and public reviews of fuel-reduction programs.
The Trump administration has almost a bloodlust for removing environmental regulations, even if doing so wouldn’t address the problem it claims it is trying to solve. The administration argues that studies and hearings delay efforts to prevent wildfires, but a new General Accounting Office report found that the weather and firefighting, not a pesky public, are more likely to delay fuel reduction programs.
The GAO report also stated that Forest Service officials could not tell investigators, for example, how much new fuel reduction efforts would cost or which areas are most susceptible to fires.
These are all issues that deserve a full debate. Legislation needed to implement much of Trump’s program has already passed the U.S. House and is currently pending in the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future. Supporters have been unable to win the 60 votes it would take to avoid a filibuster.
But prodded by the Trump administration, Republican leaders in the Senate are reportedly considering doing an end-around the American people and attaching the healthy forest legislation as an amendment to an appropriations bill.
No matter where you stand on the initiative, such a slippery move, when used to advance such an essential piece of legislation, is an unacceptable affront to our democracy.