Forest health act OK’d in committee
SUMMIT COUNTY – Jamie Connell said she is too busy with other forest projects to give a lot of thought to U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis’ Forest Health Act, which was approved in the House Resources Committee Tuesday afternoon.
The bill, which was subject to a few amendments before the committee approved it, now will be sent to the House of Representatives for discussion. Proponents said they hope the bill will be approved before the end of the session, scheduled for Oct. 18.
Forest officials here might not feel any impacts of the bill for a long time.
“We’re working to do field projects in the district with or without the bill,” said Connell, the U.S. Forest Service Dillon District ranger. “The details are still fairly gray as to how it would exactly affect us. We just look forward to working with things in the local community.”
McInnis crafted the bill after wildfires destroyed almost 6.5 million acres in the West. It is designed to expedite decision processes to allow Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management officials to thin the forests to reduce fire danger.
The bill limits the amount of thinning per year to 2 million acres, of which at least 70 percent must be in the urban-wildland interface. The interface is the area where homes and the forest blend.
Democratic Rep. Mark Udall proposed reducing that acreage to 1 million per year and increasing the percentage of treated urban-wildland areas from 70 to 85 percent, but his proposal was defeated. Udall said he might propose it again when the bill comes before the full house.
“We have limited resources, so we need to establish priorities,” he said. “I think there’s a strong case that can be made that more resources should be spent in those areas, at least until we’ve made a lot more progress in protecting the threatened communities.”
McInnis’ bill will allow the Forest Service, when preparing Environmental Analyses, to present only one proposed action with no alternatives – instead of the usual three to five. An Environmental Analysis is a less-detailed version of a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement and is typically used to evaluate environmental concerns on smaller projects.
The Forest Health bill also reduces the appeal process from 120 to 50 days, and those submitting an appeal can do so only if they submitted comments during the preparation stage of any given project. Dillon Ranger District Jamie Connell said, however, those time frames can be extended.
Lands excluded from the bill include wilderness areas and lands in which Congress has proclaimed it illegal to remove vegetation. Additionally, no new roads will be allowed to be cut in inventoried roadless areas.
Opponents of McInnis’ bill say it will gut the National Environmental Policy Act by reducing the amount of time in which people have to comment about proposed projects. They also say the bill will open the backcountry to widespread logging.
McInnis said in a press release Wednesday he was “deeply disappointed by the deliberate mischaracterization of the bill” by some environmental groups, notably the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.
In the meantime, Connell and others await the outcome of Forest Plan appeals and the implications of the McInnis bill.
“Until it becomes legislation, we’re not doing anything about it,” she said. “If the rules change, we’ll take stock and see how that affects us. Things never get boring around here, that’s for sure.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or email@example.com.
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