Dems Join GOP to Privatize, Log National Forests and Cut Education Funding

WASHINGTON — The partisan drama surrounding the House GOP’s defund-Obamacare bill on Friday obscured the passage of another piece of legislation with modest bipartisan support. Shortly after the Obamacare vote, the House approved a logging bill that would effectively privatize broad swaths of national forest land, mandate the logging of national forests, and cut education funding for some rural schools.

The bill, aggressively opposed by environmental groups and President Barack Obama, passed with bipartisan support by a vote of 244-172, with 17 Democrats joining 227 Republicans to approve it. Democrats were pressed hard to vote for the bill by, among others, the National Education Association, a teachers union with 3 million members, and by the typically environmentally friendly Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). Four Republicans and 11 Democrats did not vote.

The creatively titled “Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act” would require most national forest land with at least 20 cubic feet of available timber — roughly one mid-sized tree — to be designated as available for logging. The land would be subject to aggressive annual logging quotas, except for territory in the National Wilderness Preservation System and where federal rules prohibit the removal of vegetation. The measure would require at least 200,000 additional acres of national forest to be opened for development to generate revenue for local governments.

Obama has threatened to veto the bill. Every major U.S. environmental group views the legislation as an ecological nightmare.

“It’s arguably one of the worst forestry bills our nation has seen in decades,” said Ani Kame’enui, a Washington Sierra Club representative. “It overrides essentially all laws and regulations of 100 years of professional forest management.”

Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director with the League of Conservation Voters, called the bill “extreme.”

“Threatening a government shutdown over Obamacare isn’t the only radical proposal House Republicans put forward this week,” Taurel said. “Their extreme forestry bill would spur massive amounts of logging that would decimate forests Americans count on for clean drinking water, recreation, and healthy fish and wildlife habitat.”

School districts that include national forest land face chronic funding problems. Land development is restricted in national forests, leaving little for the school districts to tax to fund local schools. For decades, funding for these districts came from logging.

After years of declining logging revenue, Congress switched to a different funding scheme in 2000, giving rural counties the option to receive direct payments from the federal government. Counties typically accept the direct payments because it means more money than a 25 percent share of logging proceeds. The bill that cleared the House on Friday will end the direct aid program after one year, leaving schools dependent on logging money.

The NEA and the National Association of Counties — which typically support Democratic spending priorities — joined industrial logging companies lobbying in favor of the bill.

“We refer to this as ‘active management,’” said NEA’s Mary Kusler. “We knew that this safety net was not going to last forever. So this is a transition bill from a safety net to a path forward.”

The bill nevertheless would cut funding for rural schools and counties. County governments will see a funding decline of $70 million a year under the bill, with rural school districts losing $65 million, according to an analysis of Congressional Budget Office data by Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based economic research firm. While such numbers are minuscule in the context of the federal budget, they are significant for local governments, which have been forced to cut teachers and other government workers in recent years.

“You can’t cut enough to make up for what they’re getting from the treasury now,” Chris Mehl, Headwaters Economics policy director, told HuffPost.

The American Federation of Teachers did not take a position on the bill.

The bill’s promises of new forest fire prevention policies helped persuade some Democrats to cross the aisle. Ten of the 17 Democrats who voted for the bill come from Western states susceptible to wildfires. DeFazio authored a provision that would exempt land in 18 Oregon counties from federal environmental laws, allowing higher logging revenues. The Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife and other groups said DeFazio’s bill would “privatize” national forest land by exempting it from federal regulations and turning it over to industrial production. A DeFazio representative was not available for comment.

“It makes no sense from a conservation standpoint and it makes no sense from a community standpoint,” said Rebecca Judd, legislative counsel for Earthjustice. Judd called the bill “one of the most terrible pieces of forest legislation that we’ve seen in a long time.”

Even the anti-wildfire provisions pose problems for environmentalists, who argued that the bill is an irresponsible version of a decade-old GOP bill signed into law by President George W. Bush. That legislation gave the government wide authority to engage in logging on public land for fire prevention purposes, but targeted projects that would protect communities most in danger of wildfires and included safeguards for ecologically sensitive areas.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told a congressional committee hearing April 11 there was no need for more laws addressing wildfires. DeFazio asked Tidwell if the forest service was impeded by any environmental law constraints or budgetary concerns. Tidwell replied: “It’s a capacity issue right now.”

DeFazio responded: “So it’s a budgetary constraint. You don’t have enough money to do the projects, the projects you could do under the existing laws … Is that correct?”

Tidwell said DeFazio had it right. The Forest Service just needed more funding.