H.R. 2936 expedites forest health projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and improves forest management activities on public lands and and Tribal lands to return resilience to overgrown, fire-prone forested lands. The bill simplifies environmental process requirements, reduces project planning times, and lowers the cost of implementing forest management projects while still ensuring robust protection of the environment through environmental review. In addition, the legislation rewards collaboration, provides for an alternative process to resolve litigation against forest projects, and streamlines bureaucratic processes, while modernizing the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act and empowering Resource Advisory Committees to bring diverse viewpoints together to solve national forest management problems.
The bill's proponents contend that the most significant result of diminished forest health is the significant increase in catastrophic wildfires in the past 15 years. These catastrophic wildfires have a significant negative impact on watershed health, wildlife habitat, property, and human life. In 2016 alone, a total of 4,312 structures were destroyed by wildfires, including 3,192 residences, 1,025 minor structures and 78 commercial structures. Most disturbing, agency data indicates that 349 lives have been lost to catastrophic wildfire in the last twenty years.
The bill's proponents attribute the steep decline in timber harvests from federal forests to the alarming increase in the size and intensity of catastrophic wildfires. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s, USFS typically harvested between 10 and 12 billion board feet of timber annually. Beginning in 1996, the average amount of timber harvested from federal forests fell to between 1.5 and 3.3 billion board feet. However, since 1996, the average annual number of acres burned due to catastrophic wildfire total over 6.2 million acres per year.
Over 58 million acres of national forest are at high or very high risk of severe wildfire. According to the bill's proponents, the reason for the declining health and productivity of federal forests is twofold: longer planning and bureaucratic review periods that result in increased time and cost for planning and executing forest management activities, and litigation on forest planning decisions.