Through All of the Other Noise, Federal Forest Efforts Quietly Advance

While the trade war with China has consumed the Hardwood Federation’s attention and advocacy bandwidth this year, there continues to be activity on other pressing public policy issues, which we are following and engaging. Federal forest management reform is one of these, particularly now that wildfires are once again raging in California and policymakers are searching for solutions. Earlier this year, Senators Steve Daines (R-MT) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced that they were working on legislation that would expedite and expand the removal of dead, dying, and hazardous trees in our national forest system. While we have not yet seen a draft of the bill, indications are that it would include regulatory reform provisions to allow for expedited forest management work on federal forests and pair those provisions with language authorizing incentives for utilizing the forest material/biomass that is generated from these projects.

In a joint statement the Senators said: “We’re working together to develop bipartisan legislation to improve management and speed up restoration of forest landscapes, create viable solutions for the removal of woody biomass and dead and dying trees, accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation, and expedite targeted treatments of dangerously dense forested areas where wildfires are most likely to start.”

Also under development by our forester friend in the House—Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AR-4)—is a bill that has more of a climate change/greenhouse gas reduction angle to it. Again, we have not seen any language but we understand it will focus on three key areas:

  1. Increased tree planting. The proposal will seek to convert more marginal farmland and wetlands back to forest land through changes in existing conservation programs. This will be paired with incentives for planting more trees in urban areas and promoting aforestation through existing foreign aid incentive programs.
  2. Growing more wood. The measure will promote making federal forests more resilient and productive so that they are maximizing the total amount of wood on our forest lands by thinning and other management practices to promote larger trees and more total wood per acre over time. According to Rep. Westerman, the idea is to manage forests in a manner that does not allow their canopies to close, which may make them less prone to catastrophic fires and provide much better wildlife habitat. Westerman believes forests managed in this way will also have many other ancillary benefits such as water conservation and increased outdoor recreation and economic development in rural areas.
  3. Using more wood. The bill would accelerate more wood demand and creative uses of wood in buildings, paper production, energy, and chemical feedstocks among other areas. The measure would include a sustainable building tax credit that allows residential and commercial builders to receive tax credits for building and renovating buildings that a) are innovative and use environmentally friendly building materials such as wood; b) that are more energy-efficient to operate and maintain; c) store more carbon over time.

Finally, the bill would modernize the federal Renewable Fuel Standard or RFS to allow forest-based biomass to qualify for this fuel’s mandate. Currently, the definition of “forest biomass”  in the law authorizing the RFS is severely restrictive so that only energy derived from tree plantations is eligible.   Along with modernizing the RFS, Westerman’s bill would fund more research and development to develop more wood energy and wood feedstock technology to create more markets for wood.

These are just a couple of proposals that are germinating. Politically, it does not appear likely that we are going to see substantive action in the federal forest management space this year. Funding the government past November 21 and negotiations on a U.S. Canada Mexico Agreement (USMCA) are clearly well ahead of federal forestry in the priority queue. As we know, however, that could change quickly—particularly if the wildfire situation continues to escalate out West. That is why we are continuing to reach out to our champions in the House and Senate to remind them that federal forest reform remains a priority for the hardwood sector and offer our help in finding workable policy solutions.