The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation took a legislative priority directly to Capitol Hill in Washington DC. RMEF called on Congress to clean up a past ruling that opened the door to frivolous lawsuits that delayed and stopped scores of planned forest management projects to improve habitat for elk and other wildlife.
“Litigious special interests have weaponized the Endangered Species Act to prevent many wildfire-prevention and habitat management projects. The 9th Circuit Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. US Forest Service decision (aka. Cottonwood) has already delayed hundreds of projects, leading to catastrophic wildfires that have destroyed lives, property, homes, and important wildlife habitat,” testified Ryan Bronson, RMEF director of governmental affairs.
The effort to fix the Cottonwood decision is a bipartisan effort. The Obama administration appealed it in 2016 and the Trump administration later addressed it as well, without success. And earlier in 2023, five senators –three Republicans, one Democrat and one Independent – sent a letter to President Biden asking for a clean legislative fix.
“HR 200, the Forest Information Reform Act would close the open loop that the Cottonwood decision created and prevent redundant and costly delays for re-consultation under the Endangered Species Act. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation strongly supports this legislation,” Bronson added.
The nearly three-hour hearing took place on March 23, 2023, before the U.S House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands.
Go to the 1:21:32 mark of the video to see Bronson’s testimony and read his entire testimony below.
Thank you Mr. Chairman. Members of the committee, I am Ryan Bronson, Director of Government Affairs for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The Elk Foundation is a 225,000-member non-profit conservation organization with a mission to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat, and our hunting heritage. We are headquartered in Missoula, Montana.
Since our founding in 1984 we have helped conserve and enhance more than 8.6 million acres and improved access to 1.5 million acres. Most of these projects have occurred in the forests and sage lands of the western U.S. Our 500 chapters raise money in communities across the country to help us accomplish this mission and work on the public multi-use lands that are impacted by the legislation you are discussing today.
Elk benefit from diverse and actively managed forests, as do most wildlife. Overgrown forests with closed canopies, where sunlight cannot reach the forbs and grasses on the forest floor, do not provide the food and cover that so many species need.
Actively managed forests provide diverse age structures of trees, and diverse habitat that provides for the various lifecycle stages of many species. In addition, managed forests are more resilient to weather, insect outbreaks and catastrophic wildfire.
This position is not unique to hunting conservation organizations like mine. In August of 2021, a coalition of California environmental groups and land trusts sent an urgent letter outlining a history of forest management that led to forests that are “unnaturally dense, overstocked, and choked with surface and ladder fuels”. Their plea was for “a significantly increased level of ecologically based forest restoration treatments in order to turn the corner to get federal forests back to a more resilient condition.”
Unfortunately, litigious special interests have weaponized the Endangered Species Act to stop many wildfire-prevention and habitat management projects. The 9th Circuit Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. US Forest Service decision (aka. Cottonwood) has already delayed hundreds of projects, leading to catastrophic wildfires that have destroyed lives, property, homes, and important wildlife habitat. There is increased urgency today as the temporary and partial fix that Congress provided in 2018 expires, placing more projects at risk of delay.
In April of last year, the Hermit’s Peak Fire in New Mexico began as a prescribed fire that got out of control. The Forest Service’s Wildfire Review Report provided several important lessons, but it was noteworthy to us that treatment was delayed from September of 2019 to October of 2020 by a Cottonwood-related injunction, and by Covid staffing issues following that. A thinned project area would have had lower wildfire risk. The subsequent 341,000-acre fire has not been good for threatened Mexican Spotted Owls, elk, other wildlife, or people.
Fixing the Cottonwood Decision has had bipartisan support since the ruling came down. The Obama administration appealed the decision in 2016, the Trump administration addressed it with a Rule that was never finalized, and in the 117th Congress a bipartisan 16-4 vote in the Senate Energy & Natural Committee provided hope that a solution was in reach.
HR 200, the Forest Information Reform Act would close the open loop that the Cottonwood decision created and prevent redundant and costly delays for re-consultation under the Endangered Species Act. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation strongly supports this legislation.
Forest management for habitat improvement and for hazardous fuel reduction are often very similar, every acre treated through thinning, prescribed burning and other treatments help achieve the resiliency laid out in the Forest Service 10-year Wildfire Crisis Strategy.
HR 1567, the ACRES Act, will help Congress and the public gain a better understanding of the state of America’s forest lands, and the progress or deterioration that is occurring while the land agencies attempt to accelerate mitigation efforts with the new resources recently provided by Congress.
As increased funding flows to wildfire mitigation and forest management we fear that the level of on-the-ground projects that Congress envisions will be stymied by litigation, frustrating everyone.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation thanks the Committee for the opportunity to participate today.
(Video credit: U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands)