By John-Miguel Dalbey

Stewardship program in an Arizona National Forest
Stewardship program in an Arizona National Forest. Credit: Kaibab National Forest

President Obama’s signing of the Farm Bill on Friday, marks the bill’s momentous passing after two years of negotiations. Forest conservationists and timber harvesters in particular celebrated the permanent authorization of “Stewardship Contracting” clause in the bill, which allows the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to issue contracts to timber harvesters and increases forest restoration efforts. In past years, this clause was set to be renewed with each passing of the Farm Bill, but was made permanent in the recently passed version. These contracts, which are set for 10 years at a time, allow for timber harvesters to conduct prescribed burns, as well as thin forests that would otherwise become dangerously dense, thus preventing wildfires. In 2013, the Forest Service issued 195 contracts, which allowed for the production of 865,000 tons of biofuel from the thinning of 171,000 acres and the reduction of hazardous fuels on 69,000 acres. In total, 36,000 acres of forest vegetation and 72,000 acres of wildlife habitat were improved through these contracts. More than one fourth of all timber harvested from national forests was through stewardship contracting. The Forest Service estimates that a further 82 million acres are in need of restoration due to pests, fire and lack of rain.

American Forests, along with many of our forestry partners, is extremely pleased with the permanent authorization of this important tool that allows the Forest Service and BLM to increase restoration efforts on their lands. Chris Topik, director of the Restoring America’s Forests program under The Nature Conservancy, stated that “by providing permanent stewardship contracting authority, the Farm Bill provides certainty to communities, industry and conservationists to expand the collaborative forestry that improves the health of our federal forests that desperately need attention,” adding that there would be no increased taxpayer spending. Representatives from the Federal Forest Resource Coalition and the National Association of Forest Service Retirees made similar statements of support. We now look forward to working with the federal agencies to ensure the implementation of this tool is efficient and effective to ensure the restoration occurs in the best manner possible.

There has been a 54 percent increase in forest fires since 1960, and since 1970, the fire season has become two months longer, with fires five times larger on average. This intensification is largely due to climate change and buildup of hazardous fuels. Forest Service lands alone generate $13 billion in annual revenue, while sequestering 13 percent of the nation’s carbon output, housing thousands of species and storing half the nation’s water. Therefore, steps to protect our forests should be lauded, especially those bridging the divide between conservationists and business.