This week, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), the only forester in Congress, reintroduced his Resilient Federal Forests Act. The legislation attempts to expedite needed forest management projects on our nation’s federal forest lands primarily through so called “categorical exclusions” from the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. Categorical exclusions or CEs essentially allow for limited environmental impact assessments for forest projects that are similar in scope to other projects that have already undergone extensive environmental reviews. Westerman’s bill would extend CEs for projects up to 10,000 acres, particularly for those that are intended to reduce wildfire risk. The bill would also allow for voluntary arbitration as an alternative to lawsuits on forest management projects.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act passed the Republican-controlled House last Congress but languished in the Senate. Meaningful federal forest management reform provisions were included in the omnibus appropriations bill that was enacted in early 2018 and a couple more federal forest management provisions were added to the Farm Bill last year. While these new tools are very useful, the provisions in the Westerman bill would position the Forest Service to better deliver on its forest health objectives. Unfortunately, the Resilient Federal Forests Act is unlikely to move in the House this year. Democrat leadership has signaled that they prefer to focus more on the urban-wildland interface and preparedness efforts, rather than forest thinning/management to prevent wildfire.
In the Senate, Senators Steve Daines (R-MT) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are reportedly working on a bill that would address federal forest management issues and authorize subsidies to promote biomass utilization around federal forests. We have not seen language, but in talking with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee staff, the bill would have a two-pronged approach to promote markets for biomass and expedite federal forest management projects. Timing on release of this bill is unclear, but we will follow developments closely and report again when more information is available.
In the May 8 Federal Register, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Labor (DOL) published a joint rule making available an additional 30,000 H-2B temporary nonagricultural worker visas for Fiscal Year 2019. These supplemental H-2B visas are available only to returning workers who received an H-2B visa or were otherwise granted H-2B status, during one of the last three fiscal years (FY 2016, 2017, or 2018), and availability is restricted by prioritizing only those businesses who would suffer irreparable harm without the additional workers. The rule may be accessed here.On the legislative front, this week the House Appropriations Committee marked up the Fiscal Year 2020 Department of Labor Appropriations bill. During markup, the committee adopted by voice vote an amendment offered by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) that would require H-2B visas to be allocated quarterly and on a proportional basis. The amendment does not address the H-2B cap, which would need to be addressed in a Department of Homeland Security funding bill. We are in the early stages of the Congressional appropriations process and there are many steps remaining before this provision becomes law; however, it is noteworthy that the House Appropriations Committee once again voted for an improvement to the H-2B program.