Timber salvage rules at Yosemite under debate in Congress

McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 14, 2013 

— Salvage logging near Yosemite National Park could proceed without the customary environmental studies, public review or judicial oversight under a controversial bill that a key panel in the House of Representatives approved Thursday.

Authored by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., the measure that the Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee approved clear-cuts the usual administrative and legal procedures that can slow emergency logging. McClintock, whose district includes Yosemite, says top speed is crucial in the wake of last summer’s devastating Rim fire, which ravaged a quarter of a million acres in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

“Time is of the essence,” McClintock said. “I cannot emphasize this enough.” The timber sale must take place in the spring, he said, “if it is to happen at all.”

The bill, approved 19-14, faces opposition from the Forest Service and the Interior Department, though, as well as potential skepticism in the Senate. Further negotiations and tradeoffs of the kind that will test McClintock’s legislative skills will be necessary if the bill is to become law, Democrats say.

“My problem with the bill is it overreaches,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. “The art of the compromise is what it’s going to take.”

Underscoring the potential for a deal, Costa agreed that the bill’s general thrust “has merit” and at one point he huddled with McClintock for an extended private conversation. Costa missed the subsequent vote, which was delayed, though he says he would have voted against the bill in its current form. McClintock himself said he was “open to any discussion,” and while citing “the gravest reservations” he agreed to amend the measure to remove salvageable timber within Yosemite National Park from its provisions .

As finally approved by the House panel after a half-hour debate, the legislation covers timber within some 154,000 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest, as well as additional, nearby Bureau of Land Management properties.

The bill orders Forest Service and Interior Department officials to “promptly plan and implement salvage timber sales of dead, damaged or downed timber” resulting from the Rim fire. The salvage timber sales would be exempted from the usual requirements imposed by several environmental and public lands management laws. The sales also would proceed without the usual public notice and public comment periods, and courts would be powerless to review them.

McClintock cited an estimate that upward of 1 billion board feet of timber might be available for salvage across the 400-plus square miles affected by the Rim fire, which started in August. In a fire-weakened ecosystem, trees become more susceptible to disease and infestation.

“We have to get to the wood before the beetles,” McClintock said, “and the beetles already have the head start.”

Forest Service officials, in a statement opposing the bill, noted that they’re studying the potential risk from “hazard trees” that might require salvage logging along about 150 miles of road and areas adjacent to private property. The Forest Service further said it was in the early phases of planning for other possible salvage logging operations.

“There is a way to find middle ground,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the House committee’s senior Democrat. “I believe there is a way for people to sit down (and negotiate). It can’t be that we just do like the industry wants.”

Costa suggested, for instance, that judicial review of the salvage sales might be streamlined rather than eliminated outright, as would happen under the McClintock bill’s current language. Still, the potential difficulties in reaching compromise were hinted at Thursday, as some lawmakers opted to bash the Senate, the place where legislative pragmatists say that any final deal must be cut.

“I don’t think we can tremble at what the Senate might do,” declared Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., while Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop broadly denounced the Senate’s “ineptitude.”

The House committee’s action came a little more than a week after the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied a request by the state of California to extend major disaster aid that would have assisted Tuolumne and Mariposa counties’ recovery from the Rim fire. The state has 30 days from the Nov. 4 disapproval to decide whether to appeal FEMA’s decision.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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