Opposing views emerge on forestry bill

A bill before Congress would give Arkansas a greater share of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget, according to its sponsor. Opponents argue it would also ease restrictions on clear-cutting those forests.

House Bill 2936 of 2017 would allow national forests in Arkansas to respond more quickly and effectively to damage from emergencies such as ice storms, insect infestations, fires or any other disaster, said Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., the bill’s sponsor.

“The No. 1 expense of the U.S. Forest Service is fighting fires, and the No. 2 is litigation,” Westerman said Thursday in a telephone interview.

Most of the fires are in Western states. His bill would cut costs of both firefighting and legal challenges to cleanups that can quash some of those fires, he said. That would allow the service’s resources to go elsewhere, including projects in Arkansas, he said.

The bill also would end administrative appeals to the Forest Service for emergency cleanup by logging, said Tom McKinney of West Fork, conservation chairman of the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club. It would allow logging on 10,000 acres, or more than 15 square miles, without an administrative appeal for even a small problem, because it defines an emergency too broadly, he said. An area three times that large can be logged without review under some circumstances, he said.

Those who object to a project can still appeal in federal court, but Westerman’s bill would prohibit them from recovering attorneys fees. That will make court appeals a practical impossibility, McKinney said.

In sum, McKinney said, the bill would let the Forest Service do almost anything it wanted since almost any part of any forest could have wind damage or another such problem to “fix.”

Westerman of Hot Springs, who represents the state’s 4th Congressional District, passed a similar bill through the House in 2015. The new bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee on June 27, and he expects…

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