Experts debate Rep. Greg Walden's (R-Ore.) new forests bill

Supporters of new forests legislation from Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) want to quicken the pace of salvage logging and forest restoration efforts after a major wildfire, hurricane or other natural disaster. But opponents say Walden's bill undercuts key environmental laws, and that forest ecosystems are perfectly capable of recovering on their own. During today's OnPoint, Michael Goergen, executive vice president at the Society of American Foresters, and Randi Spivak, executive director of the American Lands Alliance, debate the need for salvage logging legislation and the proper role for the U.S. Forest Service after a natural disaster.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Randi Sipvak, executive director of the American Lands Alliance. Also with this us is Michael Goergen, executive vice president at the Society of American Foresters. Thank you both for being here.

Michael Goergen: Thank you.

Brian Stempeck: Now we're here today basically to talk about a new bill introduced by Congressman Greg Walden. It's a measure that would kind of speed up the process for salvage logging following a major natural disaster, like a wildfire or a hurricane. Michael just give us a sense, why is there a need for this bill?

Michael Goergen: Well every year we lose about 5 million acres of forest to devastating events like fire, hurricanes, insects, diseases. Often times it takes a very long time for those forests to recover. And what this bill would allow us to do is to get on the land faster, get the work done and try to return those forests to a condition that people really want. And that's to have forests look like forests and not brush fields.

Brian Stempeck: Randi, your response to this? Do you think there's a need for this kind of bill?

Randi Spivak: Absolutely not. In fact it's a complete distraction from the important issues at hand for land management. This bill would be very damaging public policy. It has nothing to do with the restoration at all. It basically would pollute streams and rivers, destroy our water quality. It would devastate wildlife habitat. And it would take away from millions of Americans the opportunities to hunt, fish, just be in the wild to enjoy our forests. It was basically change the shape of our natural forest ecosystems the way we know them today.

Brian Stempeck: Can you give us like a specific example? I mean these are kind of broad things that you're talking about. But specifically, why is there a problem with getting in there and doing some of the logging after we see a major hurricane or a major wildfire?

Randi Spivak: First of all, fires are a natural part of a forest. They evolved with fires, moderate, mild or severe. Science has shown, and there's extensive research on this, that this is probably one of the most damaging forms of logging that there is. It compacts the soil. It hinders natural regeneration. It takes away the large legacy trees that are old growth forests of tomorrow and are critical wildlife habitat.

Brian Stempeck: Now Michael the Forest Service's basically testified and said they don't necessarily need this bill since Healthy Forests legislation passed in 2003. After hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi and Louisiana they're working with Healthy Forests. So I mean if the Forest Service says this isn't necessary why are you pushing for this bill?

Michael Goergen: Well, what's exciting about this bill is it addresses the fact that the Forest Service has a 900,000 acre backlog of reforestation needs on these lands. And what this bill does is it makes reforestation a priority. It actually takes a lot of the tools that are in HFRA and makes them available in a reforestation context. So we can address that major backlog of 900,000 acres.

Brian Stempeck: But why is there a need to deal with this at all? If as Randi is saying these are natural events, a hurricane, wildfire, this has been happening for thousands of years, millions of years, then why the need for humans to step in and fix this?

Michael Goergen: Sure. Well there's lots of examples where forests will recover on their own. There's no doubt about that. But there are many more that actually suggests that doing some active management, getting on the land, trying to replant those forests after wildfires can come in, we can accelerate the process of recovery. And just as an example, in the Ouachita National forest, which is in Arkansas, there was a pretty devastating ice storm that came through. Forest managers were actively involved in the recovery effort immediately after the event. And what happened is today we have a very diverse forest that's supporting all kinds of different wildlife, including endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker. We can do better than allowing forests to remain as brush fields for 20 to 30 years before they actually return to forests.

Brian Stempeck: Randi, what's your reaction to that? I mean it seems that there are cases where forests have been recovered with some assistance from the Forest Service and other agencies stepping in. Isn't that the case, that there is something we can do about this?

Randi Spivak: Well, I think the bigger issue here is a question of priorities. And this bill seems like a colossal distraction from more important priorities like protecting communities from wildfire and frankly, an irresponsible use of limited forest resources. What we should be doing is focusing on community protection to make sure that areas are thinned around homes so communities can be safe first. That's the first order of business. And there's scarce enough money to accomplish that goal. In fact, there are a lot of successes around the country where conservationists are sitting down with local groups, in true collaborative processes, working on community wildfire protection and legitimate restoration. Those projects are based in science. There's no need to waive any environmental laws or regulations. And projects are developed through consensus. They are positive. They're not controversial. And they move forward rapidly so work can get done on the ground.

Brian Stempeck: Now there's another piece of legislation being offered by Congressman Udall. Talk a little bit about what that would do and whether you support that rather than the Walden proposal.

Randi Spivak: Well we definitely do not support the Walden proposal. And as I mentioned science is pretty clear on this issue, that this type of logging is incredibly destructive. Yes, Representative Tom Udall introduced the National Forest Rehabilitation and Recovery Act of 2005. And what that bill would do is it relies on a collaborative process through consensus decisionmaking, where local stakeholders come around the table. It relies strongly on science as well for communities to plan for the long-term health of their forests. And talk about what to do, what might be appropriate after natural disturbances like fire.

Brian Stempeck: All right. I want to cut through the jargon for a second here and kind of give the people a sense of what's really happening on the ground. After Hurricane Katrina hit we saw about 150,000 acres of the De Soto National Forest in Mississippi was affected. And right now the Forest Service is getting in there and dealing with that with the existing authority they have. Giving you each a minute to talk about this, what's happening on the ground there right now and what you think should happen? Michael?

Michael Goergen: Sure. I actually haven't seen with happening with the Forest Service on the De Soto. I imagine what's happening is they're going through a process where they're evaluating the threat from insects and the threat from wildfire. One of the biggest problems after a hurricane event is the threat of wildfire immediately thereafter. That forest can get dried out. There's a lot of material on the ground. That forest, particularly in lots of the rural areas of Mississippi, is owned by a lot of small private landowners, family landowners who have had that land for a long, long time. And they don't necessarily have the resources to recover those forests on their own. So there's going to be an effort to replant those forests, to maintain them as forests so that the event of a developer coming in afterwards isn't something that's going to happen. The key is prompt action and here's why. We talked a lot about science and we can use science -- I've seen people use science, the same article, on both sides of an issue. But the truth is that according to Hal Salwasser, the dean of the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, he says that there is ample amount of evidence that suggests if we don't get trees re-established within two years after a major event they're not going to be able to be re-established as cost effectively as would otherwise. So that's why we need to get this work done quickly.

Brian Stempeck: Randi your response on what should be happening right now as we look after hurricane Katrina?

Randi Spivak: Well Katrina, as far as I understand, is that work is proceeding and they all are taking out a lot of the downed wood. And in fact they're doing so with current authorities under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. In fact the chief said I do not need any new authorities to get this work done. I think the point Michael just talked about is, you know establishing trees within two years without incurring expense. The fact is forests regenerate beautifully on their own. Yellowstone is a classic example. We've learned a lot from the '88 fires. The forest today is thriving. And the forests are naturally regenerating at no cost to the taxpayers.

Brian Stempeck: Now Michael I wanted to ask about that. Yellowstone seems kind of like the poster child when it comes to the environmentalists talking about this issue, where there wasn't much action taken in the form of salvage logging and those types of things. And as Randi said it did seem to bounce back pretty well, so why the need for any involvement at all?

Michael Goergen: Sure. Well Yellowstone is a great example of natural recovery. And we're not saying that natural recovery shouldn't occur. It's a specific forest type too. That's one thing that we need people to understand, is that there are a variety of different forests across the country and they need different kinds of action. And all we're asking for is that forest managers, researchers and scientists have all the tools that they need to get the job done. There are forests that are great examples where recovery is taking a long time, 20, 30, 40 years for forests to recover after a catastrophic event. And the exact opposite with the Mount St. Helens is a terrific example. And I'm not saying that Mount St. Helens -- the plan that the Forest Service has for letting that forced them back on its own is inappropriate. It's more than appropriate. It's a wonderful story. But private land right next door has been able to be recovered into a thriving forest today as well. And it was due to prompt action from forest managers and scientists.

Brian Stempeck: Again, this seems to be the best example from the forestry side of things, talking about Mount St. Helens. I've seen the photos. Kind of the before and after type pictures of you looking at an area that was burned from the lava and the explosion, and how it was recovered naturally and how it was recovered with some man made help. What's your reaction to that? I mean it seems like there are situations, I guess there are situations in both these cases where progress may be made by letting it restore naturally or by having humans step in. But what's your reaction to the Mount St. Helens case?

Randi Spivak: Well, I think Warehouser has actually learned that natural regeneration is important and to leave woody debris on the ground. But I think the bigger picture here is not whether or not science has determined that this is damaging practice. The bigger issue, which we should all be so concerned about, is what should be the priority? And with limited agency resources shrinking every day we need to put our focus on protecting communities from wildfires first. And this type of bill will just promote logging. It has nothing to do with reforestation. And it will, again, polarize the community. We have local stakeholders sitting down, a consensus process, talking about work to be done upfront. Those projects get approved. They're scientifically sound. Environmental laws are not waived. Communities are protected from wildfire and work gets done on the ground and local jobs are created.

Brian Stempeck: I think the counter argument to that would be there's a need to do this work quickly before these logs rot or before insects come in. It seems like a lot of the things you're talking about do tend to take a longer period of time. Do you think there's a way to do what you're talking about in a faster manner?

Randi Spivak: There is no need to. And again, science shows that, and examples on the ground, that forests will recover naturally and regenerate. What they're talking about anyway in this bill is setting up our forests for timber production only. And Americans value our national forests for water, wildlife, hunting, fishing, just being in the great outdoors. And that's the way the national forests should be managed, for those values, not damaging logging and for timber production.

Brian Stempeck: Michael your reaction to that?

Michael Goergen: Randi is right. The forests should be managed for a variety of different purposes, that includes some timber harvesting, but of course it includes creating wildlife habitat. What we can do by actively managing forests, and it's terrific to hear Randi talking about that, is allow for those values be recovered faster. And in fact what we're doing is mitigating some of the short-term damage. And trying to make sure that there's no long-term risk in these forests as well. Because when we recover them faster, when we get grasses established, when we get trees established quickly, we reduce the amount of sedimentation and we reduce the impacts on water quality. That's what we're trying to achieve. We're trying to achieve a better forest. It's not necessarily about timber production. I don't really see how this bill does that. And in addition to that it doesn't suspend any environmental laws.

Brian Stempeck: One last question for you both. This bill is very similar to the Healthy Forests legislation we saw move in 2003. Some people have billed it as kind of a second coming of Healthy Forests. Give us your take so far, in the two years since Healthy Forests passed, what have been the effects so far and I guess what's your assessment of how it's been working?

Michael Goergen: Well so far -- it's a little early to tell exactly how it's been working, but when I hear from the ground is that forest managers, foresters, researchers are having an ability to use the tools a little bit more effectively. Some of the obstacles that have been in their way of getting action that on the ground are being removed. And that's a terrific thing because that means we can use the science and the skills that we have honed for over a hundred years to do the best job we can on making sure these forests are safe for communities. And do produce the values that people really want for these forests, which include wildlife, which include recreation, which include high water quality. All those things are possible and we can help them along.

Brian Stempeck: Randi, your thoughts on how Healthy Forests has been working in the past two years.

Randi Spivak: It's really too early to tell because less than a handful of projects have been completed. So we don't know at this point. But I will say that this bill would give an enormous waiver, under the National Environmental Protection Act, an enormous waiver under NEVA that people would not have the information they need to know what's going on in the forests, to understand the impact of these projects and input, timely input. So the big difference there is this is an enormous waiver of NEVA.

Brian Stempeck: All right. Randi, Michael we're out of time. Thanks a lot for coming on the show today.

Michael Goergen: Thank you Brian.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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