An interesting policy showdown is brewing with the future of forestlands (thus, a huge chunk of the Pacific Northwest economy) hanging in the balance. What's especially intriguing in this dispute is how the two sides have formed.Side One — we'll call this side The Favorites — includes 45 House Republicans (including U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Camas) and 17 House Democrats (including U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon). They are supported by 35 years of policy in the federal Clean Water Act, plus President Barack Obama, who last year signed a one-year protection of a forest roads rule that is enshrined in the act. That's a fairly impressive array of bipartisan advocates and documents, wouldn't you say?
Side Two — we'll call this side The Underdogs — includes a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
It should be clear how we determined The Favorites and The Underdogs.
On Wednesday a new player entered the story. The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unanimously passed the "Silviculture Regulatory Consistency Act," prompting our congratulations to Herrera Beutler and Schrader, who introduced the bill last year. They did so after a bizarre ruling by the 9th Circuit threatened, according to a 2011 statement from Herrera Beutler, to "have a devastating impact on Southwest Washington's economy and its workers."
The court's ruling rolled back decades of Clean Water Act policy by declaring that runoff from forest roads must be regulated the same as discharge from "point sources," including even factories and sewage treatment plants. And therefore, forestland owners would be required to obtain pollution discharge permits for forest roads.
Both Republicans and Democrats from the Northwest and across the country quickly saw how this nonsense from the 9th would suffocate economies in forested states. Herrera Beutler quantified that impact. Her written statement after Wednesday's committee vote said the 9th Circuit's ruling would cost forest and related industries in the Northwest up to $883 million per year. That's in an industry that provides 110,300 jobs in Washington state and contributes $4.9 billion to the national economy.
Furthermore, the U.S. Forest Service has specified how the court ruling would impact the government. It would take 10 years for the USFS to obtain the 400,000 permits needed on public lands, with taxpayers footing the bill, and private landowners would face a similar regulatory burden.
Schrader said on Wednesday: "The timber industry and the EPA have worked together to sustainably and responsibly manage our forests for more than three decades." That kind of partnership ought to be good enough for any American. And, "this bill ensures they can continue to regulate using the state's Best Management Practices."
The last thing the Northwest needs as the economic recovery continues to crawl from the starting blocks is an $883 million hit to the forest products industry.
Almost any rational Congress would expedite this forest roads bill to approval and rush it to the president for signature. Unfortunately, this Congress has strapped itself in a partisan strait jacket that permits limited, if any, public service.
Perhaps later this year or early next year, Congress will come to its senses and stop the 9th Circuit from trying to manage forest roads. The timber industry and the EPA already do a fine job working together on that stewardship.