Nothing is set in stone — or wood — but there were smiles throughout Idaho’s timber and logging industries on Wednesday.
The Committee on Agriculture of the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 2936, the “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017,” clearing the way for the bill to reach the House floor.
This is the so-called “Westerman Bill,” a wide-ranging forest management initiative sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ariz.
The bill has attracted attention, especially in western states, for its plans to prevent wildfires. But it also carries a critical provision creating a pilot program that will take environmental lawsuits against the federal government — those involving the Endangered Species Act — away from court decisions and into the province of an arbitrator.
Bob Boeh, vice president for government affairs with the Idaho Forest Group, was careful to say Wednesday that nothing had been finalized, but he noted the House had taken a huge step toward improving forestry management issues.
“We’ve pushed for arbitration instead of lengthy and costly court proceedings because it’s the fairest means of settling these disputes brought up by certain groups,” Boeh said after getting the news from Washington, D.C.
“This bill would handle it the right way, as well, with a pilot program that can be monitored.”
The timber industry’s objection to non-stop lawsuits has been based on what Boeh called a “sue-and-settle” strategy, which has kept certain environmental groups funded and slowed some forest projects.
Most of the suits have been filed by two organizations, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Since 1990, these two groups have filed in excess of 1,500 lawsuits, or roughly one per week over nearly three decades.
Neither group could be reached for comment on Wednesday, but they have lobbied extensively against any change in the current system.
“We’re extremely opposed to the Westerman bill,” said Randi Spivak, director of the public lands program for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an earlier interview with The Press.
“Forcing us to arbitration rather than going through the court system is denying us a fundamental right. Everyone should have access to the legal system, and binding arbitration eliminates that.
“Why shouldn’t we have our day in court?”
Besides the lawsuit issue, Boeh also made it clear he thought the Westerman bill’s provisions on wildfire management would be a huge boon to forest land.
“Good management can control fuel loading,” he said. “You have trees dying, then getting hit by lightning and suddenly a fire can get out of control.
“In a lot of cases, most of the fuel for these fires is on the ground — and that needs to be handled a lot better.”
Westerman noted the bill has had bipartisan support from the beginning.
“Passage … proves that Congress is serious about working together to tackle the major issues,” he said. “With property and lives on the line across the western United States, it again highlights the necessity of the Resilient Federal Forests Act.”
Although stressing that nothing is certain in Congress, Boeh sounded optimistic that arbitration is coming to lawsuits involving the Endangered Species Act.
“The action will be in the Senate,” he said. “I think it will pass the full House, and then some form of a combined bill should come from a Senate version.
“But the bill in the Senate also has arbitration as a main component, so we feel fairly hopeful.”