WASHINGTON, DC –U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) recently introduced legislation to improve forest and watershed health, reduce large scale wildfires, increase wildlife habitat, and support communities across rural America. The National Forest Ecosystem Improvement Act (S. 1691) will reduce the uncertainty associated with completing needed forest management projects and enable the U.S. Forest Service to restore healthy forest ecosystems.
“It’s no secret that our National Forests are dangerously overgrown, unhealthy and suffering from severe disease and insect infestation. If left untreated, these forests will continue to be at extreme risk for catastrophic wildfires,” said Barrasso. “By giving the Forest Service the ability to complete much needed ecosystem restoration projects, this bill will restore forest health, reduce the severity of wildfires, create needed wildlife habitat and support rural communities.”
Overstocked forests lead to increased severity and frequency of wildland fire and have resulted in the loss of life, property, wildlife habitat, and economic opportunities. The U.S. Forest Service spends over 40% of its entire budget on fire suppression. To improve forest health and wildlife habitat we need to emphasize activities to prevent or reduce fire severity instead of fighting expensive catastrophic wildfires.
There is growing recognition for the need to increase the pace and scale of forest management or forest restoration to help our forests and communities become healthy again. The U.S. Forest Service estimates up to 82 million acres of forest land are in need of treatment. However, the high cost of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), along with burdensome litigation, are draining U.S. Forest Service budgets, delaying desperately needed and time sensitive forest health projects, and preventing dollars from being spent on the ground where they will do the most good.
Senator Barrasso’s National Forest Ecosystem Improvement Act instructs the U.S. Forest Service to carry out ecosystem restoration projects to:
- increase wildlife habitat and watershed health
- reduce insect or disease infestation
- reduce wildland fire severity and recover ecosystem resiliency
- perform timber stand improvements
The U.S. Forest Service spends more than $356 million annually to conduct NEPA analysis and compliance requirements on forest management projects. NEPA analysis is subject to judicial review which can delay projects for years, making restoration projects impractical by reducing the value of standing timber, preventing the creation of young forest wildlife habitat and increasing the risk of wildfires.
The National Forest Ecosystem Improvement Act addresses this by making projects eligible for an innovative arbitration process instead of judicial review. It also reduces extraneous lawsuits against projects by making an action challenging an ecosystem restoration project subject to a bonding requirement.