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Sen. Barrasso's Timber Bill Unpopular With Environmentalists And Foresters


Wyoming Republican John Barrasso is leading a fight in the U.S. Senate to change regulations on timber harvesting in national forests. Matt Laslo reports from Washington that environmentalists and foresters are suspicious of his idea.

MATT LASLO: Everyone agrees timber harvesting should be increased to restore some blighted forests. What’s in contention is how to do that. Senator Barrasso wants to take seven and a half million acres and launch a pilot project to speed up timber production. Critics say the proposal sets the nation back by overhauling the Forest Service’s timber program while also mandating that timber production more than double. But Barrasso says the idea is simple.

JOHN BARRASSO: All we’re trying to do is just streamline some regulations.

LASLO: Barrasso’s proposal would impact roughly four percent of national forests.

BARRASSO: It’s a relatively small amount. It doesn’t touch any of the areas that are designated as wilderness or as road-less. The areas that we’re talking about are areas that the Forest Service has already listed as areas they admit and agree with me that are areas that are in need of help.

LASLO: Barrasso contends his bill is facing problems on two fronts. For starters, he says the White House is playing politics with his plan.

BARRASSO: I think the Forest Service would like to get on board but I think the president is being held hostage by environmental extremists. These are the same people that are fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline that hold the president hostage and as a result I think the Forest Service isn’t allowed to support legislation, which to me is common sense legislation and I think they would secretly like to have passed.

LASLO: But Barrasso also says he’s facing some opposition back home.

BARRASSO: In Wyoming the extreme environmentalists have concerns about any of the efforts we want to do for healthier forests. And I mean it’s a concern because the people of Wyoming know the fires are coming and we need to do what we can to protect the resource for recreation, for timber, the jobs that are related to that.

LASLO: Legislation similar to Barrasso’s timber bill has already passed the Republican-controlled House. At a recent hearing on Barrasso’s bill Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Thomas Tidwell put his support behind Barrasso’s broad goal.

THOMAS TIDWELL: We need to be able to increase the restoration and there are millions of acres that we need to use timber harvest to get that accomplished – there’s just no question.

LASLO: But Tidwell’s support gives way when it comes to the details. He questions Barrasso’s streamlining of the process, insinuating the public will feel locked out.

TIDWELL: I just want to make sure that we do it in a way where that the public still feels they have a role to play in the process and no one feels they’re being shorted in any way.

LASLO: Barrasso tends to be a states’ rights Republican. He blasts the Obama administration for forcing new regulations on people and berates so-called Obamacare. But former Supervisor of the Bridger Teton National Forest, Kniffy Hamilton, says, ironically when it comes to timber – Barrasso is the one forcing top-down standards on people who don’t want them.  

KNIFFY HAMILTON: So when you have a broad brush legislation that just cuts across everything, it’s not giving the local people, the local communities, the people that live here and people who care about these places an opportunity to say how their forests should be used.

LASLO: Hamilton says a better approach would be to allow Wyoming officials, the public and the Forest Service to develop a proper plan for timber.

HAMILTON: Instead of having a top- down legislation, requiring forests, such as the Bridger-Teton, to have a certain amount of logging on the forest that, what we have practiced in the past and during my tenure as forest supervisor was to have local participation in deciding those kinds of things through either a forest planning process.

LASLO: While Barrasso contends his bill only encompasses a small percentage of federal forests, Hamilton says that’s not the point.

HAMILTON: So it’s not a matter of four percent or 25 percent, it, it’s that the type of process that’s being used for determining this amount of uh, logging is not a process that was derived at the local level um, in consideration of the other values that like, the uh, Bridger-Teton has for hunting and fishing and camping and outdoor recreation, et cetera.

LASLO: As for Barrasso’s contention that extreme environmentalists are trying to derail his proposal? Hamilton begs to differ. 

HAMILTON: I don’t know who are our extreme environmentalists, I don’t know what somebody would say, say that about.

LASLO: While the House has already moved its proposal forward, it’s unlikely to pass the Democratically-controlled Senate. Still, the issue isn’t going away. The two opposing sides need to find a compromise to achieve their stated goal of improving the health of the nation’s forests. 

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Matt Laslo in Washington.

Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering campaigns and every aspect of federal policy since 2006. While he has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, he has also written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Guardian, The Omaha World-Herald, VICE News and Washingtonian Magazine.

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