Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) | Facebook

Committee blasts Forest Service as it considers bills handing over federal forests

A house subcommittee considered three bills on Thursday that would give states greater power over national forests, including one bill that would allow them to acquire as much as two million acres of national forests.

The State National Forest Management Act, introduced last September by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), comes in response to a shrinking timber industry that he says has stagnated the economy in southeast Alaska, which includes the Tongass National Forest, a 17 million acre tract managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Although the bill text is worded to include any state, it limits the nationwide maximum to two million acres. During his testimony, Young frequently referenced plans for Alaska to acquire all two million within Tongass.

“I make no bones about it, this is about trying to keep a viable economy working in southeast Alaska, which has died since we passed the National Lands (Use Policy) Act,” Young testified before the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands.  

He was critical of the Forest Service for not doing enough to clear dead timber and keep forests healthy.  “I’m very upset with the Forest Service - they stop cutting trees, they become park rangers. The government does not manage land properly.”

The measure drew opposition from environmentalists, particularly those who argued that the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, has to balance the impacts of climate change in considering it forestry management plans.

Climate change became a particular area of debate, as advocates drew correlations between falling timber harvests in national forests, and an sharp increase in wildfires. Rep. Tim McClintock (R-California), chairman of the subcommittee, pointed to an 80 percent decrease in timber production over the past 40 years as a contributing factor in the fires.

“All that timber comes out of the forest one way or another: It’s either carried out or it’s burned out.,” McClintock argued at the committee hearing. “And when it was carried out we had much healthier forests.”

Committee member Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Massachusetts) took issue with those claims. She argued the fires resulted from a number of factors, including climate change. Representatives from the Sierra Club also emphasized the role climate change has played in forestry management.

“The jury is really out on that one,” Athan Manuel, director of public lands policy with the Sierra Club, told AMI Newswire. “You can’t peg forest fires to one cause.”

In his proposed budget, President Obama sought more than $62 million more for the Forestry Service for firefighting, bringing the total cost of wildfire suppression to $873 million, nearly 20 percent of the service’s proposed budget.

Manuel  argued that, while Young routinely submits a bill to revive the lumber industry, southeast Alaska and other regions should be focusing on renewable industries available through its forests, such as fisheries and tourism. He accused Young and supporters of the bill of “looking backward instead of forward.”

In addition to Young’s bill, the committee also discussed the Self Sufficient Communities Lands Act, introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), that would give greater access to National Forest Service lands for logging; and Utah Test and Training Range Encroachment Prevention and Temporary Closure Act, introduced by Rep. Chris Steward (R-Utah), that would grant rights of way for roads on Bureau of Land Management-controlled forests in Utah.