House, Senate Committees Attack Environmental Laws Using Wildfires as Pretext
Two congressional committees will hold coordinated hearings Wednesday to push partisan legislation designed to weaken environmental laws on public lands.
The House Natural Resources Committee will use the pretext of "catastrophic" wildfires to build support for legislation by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) that would curtail protections for endangered species and limit science-based review of environmental harms to expedite logging projects.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will consider three bills designed to limit environmental reviews on a variety of logging and forest-management projects on public lands.
"Timber companies would be the only winners if these terrible bills pass," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director with the Center for Biological Diversity. "No matter what issue our public lands face, the knee-jerk response from congressional Republicans is an effort to gut our environmental laws. They're willing to sacrifice our wildlife, healthy streams and rivers, and vibrant public lands on the altar of private profit."
The Senate committee will consider three bills:
- S. 605 by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) would eliminate consultations required under the Endangered Species Act when a new species is added to the endangered species list or when critical habitat for a listed species is revised for Forest Service lands where a land management plan is already in place. Only when that plan is revised—usually every 15-20 years—would the Forest Service be required to review it at the landscape level.
- S. 1417 by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) would severely limit science-based review of potential harms under the National Environmental Policy Act for juniper-tree control projects on public lands if those projects are designed to benefit either mule deer or sage grouse populations. While Juniper control may be appropriate in some ecosystems, many juniper-removal projects use destructive chaining, plant non-native seeds and spray herbicides that could actually harm sage grouse and other species. That potential harm needs to be evaluated and disclosed.
- S. 1731 by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) would exempt many types of logging and forest-management activities up to 10,000 acres—approximately 15 square miles—from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. The legislation includes provisions that would also limit judicial review of Forest Service logging activities and force citizens to use binding arbitration if they want to challenge a poorly conceived logging project.
The House committee will consider Westerman's bill, which would eliminate Endangered Species Act requirements that the Forest Service ensure logging projects do not harm endangered wildlife and plants. It also would rush through large-scale logging projects—up to 46 square miles—without meaningful public involvement or scientific evaluation by excluding such projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"Republicans have repeatedly cut resources to the Forest Service, making it harder for agency workers to do their jobs," Hartl said. "Then the GOP scapegoats environmental laws for the problems that these funding cuts have caused. It's an incredibly cynical and dangerous strategy."
When properly funded, the Forest Service can meet its legal obligations and protect endangered species and natural resources. For example, in June the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service completed an important consultation process under the Endangered Species Act in just 10 days, covering nine national forests in the Sierra Nevada region, following the designation of critical habitat for the Yosemite toad and Sierra Nevada and mountain yellow-legged frogs. This type of consultation would be eliminated under the Daines-Tester legislation.
"Daines and Tester are wrong. Weakening the Endangered Species Act doesn't improve forest management—it only makes timber companies richer," said Hartl. "The main reasons forest projects are delayed is because Republicans in Congress have been starving the agencies of funding."