Forestry Notes Q&A: Congressman Bruce Westerman

Congressman Bruce Westerman is serving his third term as representative from the fourth district of Arkansas. He serves on the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where he is Ranking Member of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee. Westerman graduated from the University of Arkansas with a Bachelor of Science degree in biological and agricultural engineering; he received a  Master of Forestry degree from Yale University in 2001.

Congressman Westerman visited with NACD Forestry Specialist Mike Beacom last month (pictured).

You are viewed by the forestry sector as the resident forester in Congress — somebody who gets it, who knows the issues. Tell me the upside and the downside to carrying that label.

I guess when you’re the only forester in Congress, you kind of take the mantel on that, but the upside is I get to work on a lot of policy issues that are very exciting to me, and a part of society that’s personal to me. It’s the area I chose to make my career and to be able to come to Congress and work on those issues is really a great opportunity for me.

This is something that is in your blood. Tell me a little bit about that, growing up, what forestry and the forest industry meant to you.

I grew up in the woods, you might say, in a heavily forested area outside of Hot Springs, Ark., where I saw the impact of forest management. Our recreation was hunting and fishing and whatever activities we could do at the local schools. So I’ve been hunting in the forests of Arkansas for basically as long as I can remember, and I can vividly remember the dramatic increase in deer and turkey and quail when the forestry companies came in and started managing the timber. This was timber that had been cut over probably 60 or 70 years before and had grown back naturally and had no management really done on it. When the timber companies started managing it, there was an exponential increase in wildlife, and it was because of the habitat. So, without understanding the science behind forestry, I witnessed firsthand the impacts of sound management.

It was a big part of the economy where I grew up. You had mills and timber land, and there was industrial private timberland, nonindustrial private timberland, there were public lands, but it was just natural to manage the timber and knowing it was going into mills, and a lot of people worked in those mills and made many of the products that got used in homes, paper and packaging and all those various areas.

When it comes to educating the public about forest management, many kids still hear in school, ‘Don’t use paper products’ and ‘Cutting trees is bad.’ How do you begin to educate about forest management and the need to have healthy forests as opposed to taking away a natural resource?

I know in Arkansas, the Arkansas Forestry Division is helping to educate school teachers and the general public through Project Learning Tree. But we all have to talk about the benefits of a healthy forest because it’s a winning message, especially in today’s environmentally-conscious world. One of the best things we can have for the environment is a healthy forest.

I recently spoke to a group that’s involved in wetlands mitigation about how a lot of times we work against nature instead of with nature. The way I describe that is what we’ve done with fire suppression on our forests. We thought we were doing a good thing putting the fire out every time it happened, but the fuels continued to build up, the stands got more overstocked and dense, and it was creating the perfect habitat for insects and disease attacks. Now we’re seeing where some of the Western states are losing trees faster than they’re growing; whereas you look at southern states like Arkansas and Georgia where they’ve put in sound management practices… in Arkansas, for example, the forests are growing 16 million tons a year more than what’s being used. The number I saw for Georgia is 19 million tons a year. Both of those states have very vibrant forest economies. It could be that way in the West, as well. We wouldn’t be creating these huge fuel sinks where ultimately they’re going to burn up. But it requires implementing the science and doing what we very well know how to do. And it’s a winner for the environment.

We’ve got this tremendous resource in timber, and we desperately need more markets to be able to utilize the timber that’s out there and keep forests healthy. I say this over and over, that the forest needs industry way more than industry needs the forest right now.

I’ve been told you spend time in the forest when you go back home, not just go home to relax and get away from Washington D.C.

I like to get out and see the things in my district. If I am ‘relaxing,’ I’m usually in the forest or out on the lake, enjoying the beautiful nature and scenery that we’ve got in Arkansas. But there’s so much to see and so much to learn and so much opportunity. I want to be an ambassador for what we’ve got in Arkansas, and the more I can learn about what we’ve got, the more I can tell other people about it.

You’ve argued for the need to expedite NEPA as a way to get some management on our public forest so we can start to make an impact.

NEPA with good intentions has often been misused by people who don’t want to see any kind of management on the forest. I could make a case that if you’re using scientific management practices on a forest, you’re exceeding all of the goals that NEPA is trying to achieve in the first place, because when you’re using the science of forestry management you’re concerned about water, you’re concerned about soils, you’re concerned about endangered species and other wildlife. The key to that is having a healthy, thriving forest. With all the good intentions of NEPA, it often gets weaponized and used in ways it shouldn’t be used. I would like to see us be able to streamline that process and still be able to check all the boxes off, but not have it as a tool to hold stuff up in court. But I think the proof is in the pudding. You can look at forests that are managed with no NEPA regulations whatsoever, and they are healthier than the federal lands that fall under all these NEPA regulations. I think people who want to use NEPA as a tool to stop management on the national forests should have to explain how NEPA is really helping these federal lands.

You brought up litigation. Some would argue that has been the biggest threat to the forest. What do we do to improve that?

Having been in Congress here for a while and working on these issues, I know that the litigation component seems to be the holy grail of some of my colleagues across the aisle. They’ll work on a lot of things, but it’s hard to get them to do anything substantial on the litigation component. I mean, if you just look at the Equal Access to Justice Act alone, and how that’s being misused to stop forest management plans, and the damage that’s happening to those forest ecosystems because somebody is using federal funds to actually sue the federal government, that’s reason enough to justify litigation reform. But it’s more than just Equal Access to Justice. We tried to do an arbitration model, we tried to do a model where you had to post a bond, so that if you’re losing a suit against the U.S. Forest Service, you have to have a bond to pay for costs, but we’ve not been able to find that component yet that we can get people to agree on how to de-weaponize NEPA.

And it’s not just NEPA, it’s the Endangered Species Act and other things – any legal mechanism that people can use to stop management gets utilized. Categorical exclusions are good steps in the right direction and we’ve had some victories with those. We’ve had victories with Good Neighbor Authority, which allows states and now tribes and local communities to go in and manage on federal lands. But if you look at the order of magnitude of 192 million acres of federal land and the percentage of it that’s already classified as subject to catastrophic wildfire, mathematically, we can’t catch up with the approach that we’re taking right now. We’re going to continue to see these huge wildfires for years on out. But I do commend Secretary Perdue and the Forest Service for the work they’re doing now in getting more management out in the field.

We had a fix for the borrowing issue, that’s what the Forest Service was saying was one of the big things that was holding them up. I would like to do a more concentrated effort in the wildland urban interface (WUI), that’s like the first line of defense for lives and property in these urban areas that are out there interfacing with our forest, but even getting more stuff done in the wildland urban interface is hard to do.

So much money is spent on the WUI based on cost of homes and the investment needed to fight in those areas. I think most people understand the wildfire funding fix is not the end-all-be-all to our wildfire problem. Is that what you feel the next phase is, to focus on the WUI?

It’s kind of the crux of the whole problem. We’ve all heard ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ Look at how much emergency funding is having to go to these areas that get ravaged by wildfire when we could spend a small fraction of that doing work in the wildland urban interface. The programs are out there. You’ve got the Firewise program, the Forest Service State and Private Forestry programs where you can do Forest Stewardship, where you can get the expertise out in these wildland urban interfaces to make them much more fire resilient.

We had a bill that passed out of the House this Congress for disaster relief. And I worked with Jimmy Panetta, a democrat from California, and we got an amendment in the bill to put additional funding into the State and Private Forestry program focused specifically on the WUI, and it was well received from both sides of the aisle. We’ve got tremendous opportunity to make smart investments in the wildland urban interface.

We think of the fires out West, but if you look at a map of all the WUIs, most are in the East. It wasn’t that long ago we had the fire in Gatlinburg (Tenn.). Most people don’t think of those kind of fires happening in in the East, but as we get warmer and drier climates and more people move into these wildland urban interfaces, it’s going to be critical that we do a better job of managing it.

You mentioned working across the aisle. Do you see forestry as an issue that can be nonpolitical?

I think it’s all part of the education process. We have the working forest caucus and we get good attendance at that, and the more people that understand about the benefits of healthy forests, I think the more policy we will see to promote healthy forests. But the things we scratched and clawed for to get in different bills to deal with forests – getting it through the House was one thing, negotiations with the Senate is a whole ‘nother endeavor.

What do you believe will be the strongest single selling point to policymakers for the value of conserving America’s forest lands in the coming years?

The number one selling point is all the positive implications of stewardship and conservation. These benefits include cleaner air, cleaner water, better wildlife habitat, better outdoor recreation opportunities and strengthening rural economies.

Check out NACD’s Forestry Notes for more Q&As and stories like this.

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