Harnessing Partnerships To Accelerate Forest Project Environmental Reviews
"Expanding partnership opportunities for private groups to accelerate approval and implementation of forest restoration projects is a needed step to fix America’s forests."
Large and destructive wildfires are common across the West. Although several factors contribute to this trend, a significant one is the declining health of our nation’s forests. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of land, reports a backlog of 80 million acres in need of restoration and 63 million acres facing high or very high risk of wildfire. Despite wide agreement that active management of forests, including mechanical thinning and prescribed burns, help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, the Forest Service only carries out about 3 million acres of treatments per year.
Recent research from PERC found that environmental reviews, specifically the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), can hold up forest projects for years. Increasing the pace and scale of forest management activities is going to require cutting through the environmental red tape that makes it so challenging to approve these projects. The good news is that legislation from Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.) that aims to promote public-private collaboration to accelerate environmental reviews and tackle the wildfire crisis is moving through Congress.
The basis for Senator Daines’s Root and Stem Project Authorization Act (S. 3046) is the “A to Z” pilot project in the Colville National Forest in Washington. Several years ago, the Colville National Forest ran out of funding to implement restoration projects in the forest, so the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, a collaborative group of public and private partners, proposed allowing timber contractors to bear the costs of NEPA analysis in exchange for a contract to perform harvesting and restoration work. This “A to Z” project–so named because the winning bidder would be responsible for the entire process from initiating the project, to environmental review, to implementation–presented the opportunity to use the commercial value of harvested timber to reduce bureaucratic burdens and fund forest restoration.
A local sawmill, Vaagen Brothers Lumber, won the 10-year Forest Service stewardship contract in 2013 to test the privately funded, publicly managed NEPA process. It subcontracted with a third party to plan and perform the environmental analysis. To avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, the subcontractor’s performance was overseen by agency personnel rather than Vaagen Brothers. The NEPA analysis was completed in 2016, and the Vaagen Brothers began commercial thinning operations on more than 4,500 acres of national forest lands that contain excess wildfire fuels.
With a mill that can process small-diameter trees and nearby processing facilities that can turn that timber into laminated building products, the contract provides Vaagen Brothers with a supply of merchantable wood products. In exchange, the terms of the stewardship contract require that the private company rehabilitate streams, replace culverts, restore roads and control noxious weeds, leaving the forest ecosystem more resilient to insects and disease, enhanced wildlife habitat and a substantially reduced risk for severe wildfire.
The proposed Root and Stem Project Authorization Act would build on the success of the “A to Z” project to widely allow sponsors of collaboratively developed forest restoration projects to front the cost of environmental reviews, which would be performed by independent experts selected and supervised by the Forest Service. Contracting out this service could speed up the process substantially to allow collaboratives and private timber companies to conduct forest restoration activities while also freeing up agency resources and personnel to advance other projects.
“Only with the help of states and the private sector can we tackle the wildfire crisis and the 80 million acre forest-restoration backlog,” explained PERC Vice President of Law and Policy Jonathan Wood, “Building on the success of the Colville National Forest’s “A to Z” project, the Roots and Stem Project Authorization Act of 2021 proposes to harness the power of public-private collaboration by empowering states and private parties to design forest restoration projects, to fund environmental analysis, and to implement projects. The bill also addresses the serious threat of litigation to responsible forest management.”
There’s potential that this proposed legislation could pass in the last month of this Congress. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) signed on as a co-sponsor, and the bill passed unanimously through the Senate committee process.
Reducing wildfire risk will require reducing barriers to getting forest management work done on the ground. Expanding partnership opportunities for private groups to accelerate approval and implementation of forest restoration projects is a needed step to fix America’s forests.
Hannah Downey is the policy director at PERC (the Property and Environment Research Center) in Bozeman.