Editor's note: This updates the story with comment from the National Parks Conservation Association.
A California congressman is pushing legislation that would turn aside federal environmental laws to allow for the salvage of timber burned by the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park and the adjacent Stanislaus National Forest.
Under H.R. 3188, the Yosemite Rim Fire Emergency Salvage Act, timber salvage sales "shall proceed immediately and to completion" without having to comply with regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Management Act or respecting official wilderness in Yosemite.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, told the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Thursday morning that delaying salvage would greatly devalue the worth of the damaged timber -- "We would lose over half of the value," he testified -- and lead to on-the-ground problems with erosion and fuel loads that could lead to wildfires down the road.
In response to a question from Rep. Raul Grijalva, Mr. Partin said areas in Yosemite could benefit from salvage sales and the landscape made safer for visitors.
National Parks Conservation Association representatives, while appreciating "the bill's intent to respond to an emergency," they disagreed with the approach and questioned whether "salvage logging in Yosemite National Park is needed."
HR 3188 forces the National Park Service (NPS) to plan and sell timber on these lands – waiving all national park and environmental laws, environmental review and public engagement processes. These are the very laws that direct NPS to preserve natural resources – the laws and subsequent policies that would help NPS determine if a salvage logging operation is needed. Scientists, affected communities, and citizens would not be provided an opportunity to review and comment on a plan to conduct a timber operation.
After significant ecological events on public land, such as the Rim Fire, it is critical that policymakers consult with public land management agencies, which have a duty to manage the lands for its intended purpose. Yet the timber activities proposed in HR 3188 have not been requested by the National Park Service. We fear that allowing logging operations in Yosemite, especially after a major ecological event and without any environmental review, can have severe negative consequences on park resources.
In opposing the legislation, The Wilderness Society said the measure "seeks to use the Yosemite Rim Fire to justify large-scale, environmentally-destructive salvage logging without any legal boundaries, judicial oversight, or public input in some of the wildest places in northern California."
"H.R. 3188 attempts to override all existing laws and to prohibit administrative and judicial review for purposes of salvage logging operations in the Rim Fire area. This would eliminate all accountability to the public, the courts, or an entire slate of laws designed to ensure responsible management of public lands," Alan Rowsome, the Society's senior director for Government Affairs for Lands, wrote in prepared comments.
While Rep. Tom McClintock, the bill's primary sponsor, said the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service would be able to oversee the salvage sales with "their best judgment," The Wilderness Society objections noted that the bill's wording "attempts to override all protections from longstanding forest management and environmental laws (such as the National Forest Management Act, Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act), as well as foreclosing all public input under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
"Sec. 1(b)(2) goes even further by attempting to eliminate all administrative or judicial review, removing the last checks and balances responsible for ensuring the legality of logging projects."
Rep. Grijalva picked up on that, noting the legislation as written said the Park Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management "shall promptly plan and implement salvage timber sales of dead, damaged, or downed timber resulting from that wildfire. (emphasis added.)"
That wording, the Arizona Democrat said, didn't give the agencies the option to deny salvage sales but rather directed them to approve them.
NPCA officials, meanwhile, also questioned why "salvage logging (is) the only activity listed to restore Yosemite National Park in reaction to the Rim Fire?"
Too, they noted that salvage logging in the Tuolumne River watershed, which is the source for San Francisco's water, could negatively impact that watershed and lead to water quality problems.
"How would waiving laws ensure that drinking water for millions of California residents would be protected from potential impacts? How would waiving laws such as NEPA allow the public to understand the potential risk to their drinking water quality as a result of salvage logging impacts?" the group wrote in its comments. "How would waiving NEPA and other administrative processes allow municipalities to provide input on actions that could impact their drinking water?"