Timber! Loggers hope to fire up chain saws with help of Trump, GOP-run Congress

A stump among a forest of burned trees following the King Fire in California’s El Dorado County on Oct. 10, 2014.
A stump among a forest of burned trees following the King Fire in California’s El Dorado County on Oct. 10, 2014. rbenton@sacbee.com

Western timber industry leaders have new hope for easier logging in national forests, aided by their Capitol Hill allies and perhaps the still-shorthanded Trump administration.

With devoutly conservative Republicans from California and Utah chairing forest-related congressional panels, and a business-friendly administration antagonistic toward environmental regulations, the time appears opportune to some and dangerous to others. A hearing Wednesday revved up the debate about making it easier to turn trees into commerce.

“There are a number of barriers . . . (and) stay-away zones,” Steven A. Brink, vice president of public resources and logging advocate for the California Forestry Association, told lawmakers, adding that “we will never get the forest into a resilient condition if we have to walk away from half of it.”

Brink’s words resonated with Republicans on the House Federal Lands Subcommittee, convened by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., a longtime proponent of easing logging restrictions. McClintock’s district sprawls across mountainous Sierra Nevada counties where wildfires have raged.

Wednesday he called for a “dramatic change” in forest management, with more thinning of the dead and dying trees that can fuel a fire.

“The forests are dying,” McClintock said, adding that “the American people want our forests returned to health. They want the scourge of wildfire brought under control.”

The weeks-long Rim Fire in 2013, for instance, burned some 257,314 acres. It started in California’s Stanislaus National Forest and spread into Yosemite National Park, becoming the third largest wildfire in California’s history.

Last year, 560,000 federally owned acres burned in California, while wildfires burned 361,000 federal acres in Idaho and 293,000 acres in Washington state, according to the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center.

“Recent (global) warming and more people in harm’s way has increased the risks and costs of wildfire,” said Tania Schoennagel, a forest ecologist at the University of Colorado.

Schoennagel and other experts agree on the special vulnerabilities of the “wildland urban interface,” as more housing developments press up against fire-prone forests. Protecting these areas has helped drive up Forest Service firefighting costs, so that firefighting now consumes more than half of the agency’s budget.

On other areas, there’s disagreement.

Part of the debate revolves around what’s causing the growth in wildfires, which burned 5.5 million acres nationwide last year. In 1987, 2.7 million acres burned. While Schoennagel said the increasing severity of wildfires “very closely tracks” rising global temperatures, some Republicans lawmakers challenged her and stressed the heightened fire risk from overly dense forests.

“The trend is in the wrong direction,” Brink said. “The number, size and intensity of wildfires is going to continue to grow.”

Citing wildfire risks, McClintock previously introduced legislation that limited environmental or judicial reviews of harvest logging operations following the Rim Fire. Resistance from the Obama administration, and a slow-moving or skeptical Senate, stymied these efforts, and he has authored a different Emergency Forest Restoration Act this year, whose 12 co-sponsors are all Republicans.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah chairs the comparable Senate panel that oversees the Forest Service, but he has not yet introduced a related bill this year.

The hearing Wednesday afternoon did not include a witness from the Trump administration, which is still struggling to fill key policy positions.

Notably, the administration has not nominated anyone for Agriculture Department undersecretary for natural resources and environment, one of more than a dozen vacancies at the top of the department. The current Forest Service chief, Tom Tidwell, a Boise native who served as a deputy regional forester in California, was appointed by the Obama administration in 2009.

Forest Service chiefs, though they are career professionals rather than political appointees, often end up leaving when administrations change.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, formerly the governor of timber-rich Georgia, “received timber industry backing and is seen as a champion of logging interests,” according to the liberal Center for American Progress.

The other major federal public lands agency, the Interior Department, likewise lacks nominees for nearly all of its top positions, although lawyer and former Westlands Water District lobbyist David Bernhardt will face his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday to serve as the department’s deputy secretary.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10