Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem said Thursday that they are optimistic that Congress will be receptive to their plan for fewer environmental regulations and more pine-beetle-control work in the Black Hills.
But their efforts of persuasion might have to begin in their home-state delegation. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson isn’t quite ready to endorse the legislation by his two Republican colleagues.
Thune and Noem pitched their plan during a press conference at the Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City. They said the legislation, which they expect to be attached to the 2012 farm bill, will slice through restrictions in the National Environmental Policy Act and other potential delays, speeding up projects aimed at fighting a beetle proliferation that Thune labeled a “slow-moving disaster.”
“It’s important that we give the Forest Service every possible tool to deal with that situation,” Thune said.
Johnson did not join in the press conference. But he said later in response to Journal questions that red tape is less of a problem in the beetle wars than a shortage of federal funds to pay for needed projects and programs.
“Ultimately, the biggest hurdle to doing more to address the pine beetle in the Black Hills isn’t red tape, it’s money,” Johnson said in a comment provided by his staff. “Timber sales and other treatment projects require resources, and I’m most concerned about the Forest Service budget going forward.”
Money has been a problem for beetle-control work. And the state’s congressional members have worked in recent years to increase funding to the Black Hills National Forest for that purpose. The Republican members in particular also have pushed for emergency authority and more freedom from restrictive environment laws and rules, something Johnson said he supports in concept.
He stopped short, however, of endorsing the legislation by Thune and Noem.
“I support the overall goals of increasing the flexibility of the Forest Service to respond to the pine beetles in the Black Hills, and especially increasing the use of cooperative agreements,” Johnson said.
In the past few weeks, the state’s senior senator has met with Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. Johnson said those meetings were “to discuss ways to expedite the review process for the pine beetle response, even as numerous projects are under way.”
Noem has worked with Forest Service officials for more flexibility, too. But sometimes administration officials in charge of environmental regulations have not been willing to bend, she said. The legislation will assure that the flexibility is there.
More cooperative agreements of the kind Johnson mentioned are part of the Thune-Noem proposal. “Good neighbor” provisions would give state foresters more authority to act in projects as “an agent of the secretary of agriculture.” This could be especially useful in areas where work to fight beetle must be done cooperatively on national forest and adjoining private forest.
Asked Thursday if that provision would be acceptable to the Forest Service, Bobzien said that his supervisors in Washington, D.C., would have to answer that question. But Bobzien said the Forest Service already works in cooperation with the state and other entities on some projects.
Other provisions of the legislation would ensure that flexibility on forest projects now designated for areas near communities would extend throughout the forest. They also would eliminate appeals of certain decisions and allow categorical exclusions that expedite work to cover projects up to 10,000 acres - instead of the current level of 200 acres - as long as the areas do not include designated wilderness and conform to the forest plan.
Thune and Noem defended the reduction of environmental restrictions, saying that the beetle epidemic is a crisis situation and that projects will be handled responsibly with sound resource management principles.
Jim Scherrer, a private landowner south of Hill City and chairman of the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board, said that while money is essential to forest projects and beetle control, regulations pose the greatest restraint.
“The issue isn’t dough as much as it is the regulatory issues,” Scherrer said. “This (legislation) is the link that we have really needed.”
The legislation would have national impacts, since it could be used by forests in other states. Thune said the Senate is likely to deal with the legislation first. Both he and Noem said there is a good chance the legislation will be attached to the farm bill.
The current farm bill expires at the end of September. This legislation could see action as part of the farm bill by then, Thune said.
“If we can get the farm bill moving, that’s the big question,” Thune said. “I feel good about this being in there.”
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.