By FRANCES LAMBERTS
The answer to a question – “Could the Cherokee Forest be next?” – raised in an Associated Press article on September 19 may be “No.” Although the Administration may open up to mining, logging and other development hundreds of thousands of acres of the nation’s public lands, the referenced proposal does not involve the national forests.
Yet lands “revered for natural beauty and historical significance,” the article notes, will be affected under it, namely national monuments in Utah, Nevada and Oregon, Maine, New Mexico and California. Either partially or completely, they stand to lose monument protection and be given over to commercial exploitation.
Yet the answer to the question is also “Yes.” The Cherokee and all other national forests are at threat from another source – the U.S. Congress. A bill introduced in the House of Representatives (HR 2936) would gut federal environmental laws and re-focus the forests’ purpose on timber production, primarily. Though (deceptively) named the “Resilient Federal Forests Act” and promoted as a cure to the ever spreading wildfires, it expressly allows logging volumes even higher than annual regrowth, or sustainable yield, and would greatly curtail the forests’ other uses.
One might see the bill as a change back to what Theodore Roosevelt, the forests’ founder, called “the unrestrained greed of those who would exploit them at the expense of the future.”
It would allow clear-cutting of vast, 10,000-acre or even 30,000 acre tracts, under various broadly defined purposes such as response to catastrophic weather events and storms, protecting “public health and safety” through removal of hazard trees, or vegetation management for reducing risk of wildfires. It would exempt many such massive logging projects entirely from review of damage to water, wildlife or other human uses, as currently required under the National Environmental Policy law.
Under President Bush, NEPA-exempted logging operations were limited to 250 acres.
A 2002 listing from the Cherokee National Forest shows it to harbor more than 160 animals and plants native to our region, whose future existence was at risk. For various members of its fish and birds, amphibians and insects and freshwater mussels, some mammals and numerous plants, the Cherokee like the other forests provides essential, remnant habitat and the “haven of refuge” that President Roosevelt sought the forest reserves to be. His view of the importance to society of protecting the heritage of any of its wildlife “tending toward extinction” became embodied, eventually, in the Endangered Species Act implemented under President Nixon.
The HR 3926 bill is a broad attack also on the ESA. It does away with the requirement for consultation with the wildlife agencies to ensure that large-scale new logging projects or changes to an established forest plan not jeopardize already at-risk species through destruction of habitat essential for their survival.
Congressman Phil Roe’s support for preservation of our wildlife heritage – in the Tennessee Wilderness Act this year – gives me hope that he and many other members of the House Representatives will vote to defeat the misnamed “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017.”