The U.S. House of Representatives passed a forestry bill on Friday that includes an amendment by Congressman Tom McClintock intended to expedite the salvage of timber burned in the Rim Fire.
The bill, HR 1526, also known as the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, was approved 244-173. House Democrats largely opposed the measure, with 172 voting against and only 17 in favor.
"Salvaging timber will provide for an economic lifeline to communities already devastated by this fire as local mills can be brought to full employment salvaging the timber," McClintock, R-Granite Bay, said in a written statement Friday.
The Rim Fire has burned about 402 square miles in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties as well as Yosemite National Park since it began Aug. 17. It started after a hunter lost control of an illegal campfire in the Clavey River canyon, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The hunter's identity has not been released, and he has not been arrested.
Fire crews had the blaze 84 percent contained as of Monday morning and were anticipating full containment on Oct. 1.
A recent Forest Service assessment found that roughly 98,000 acres, or 40 percent, of trees, shrubs and other plant life within the fire's footprint burned at "high severity," meaning most of it will not recover. Another 70,000 acres of vegetation burned at "moderate severity," with only 25 percent to 75 percent expected to survive.
Scientists have described the amount of salvage logging and reforestation work that lies ahead as "unprecedented" because of the fire's historic intensity, which falls in line with a trend of increasing wildfire intensity, size and frequency seen over the past couple decades.
An estimated 1 billion board-feet of burned timber can be salvaged out of forests impacted by the fire, according to McClintock's office. The dead wood is considered "unsalvageable" after about 18 months because it loses value from rot, decay and pestilence.
McClintock's amendment would streamline the process by foregoing "judicial review" of salvage plans for all 2013 wildfires.
The bill itself would authorize increased timber harvests in national forests and refocus the Forest Service's mission on "sound forest management practices." It will next be considered in the U.S. Senate at a later, undetermined date.
Sierra Nevada forests have been left in a state of "benign neglect" because of "extremist environmental regulations" that have driven down timber harvests by 80 percent over the past 30 years, McClintock said.
Local environmentalists have said they support expediting salvage logging and reforestation efforts on the fire-damaged Stanislaus National Forest - but not the Healthy Forests Act.
One reason for the urgency is due to the fact that low-lying shrubs and brush are what typically grows back first on land that's been ravaged by fire. These shrubs and brush can not only fuel future wildfires, but also impede reforestation efforts by crowding out tree seedlings that are competing for sunlight, water and nutrients.
John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, said the forestry bill itself would shift too much of the Forest Service's focus on meeting timber-harvesting thresholds rather than other efforts, such as conservation.
"Adding something that could have good intentions for the Rim Fire doesn't change that the legislation is totally at odds with national forest management," Buckley said. "That particular bill exempts massive projects from NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) and all sorts of other activities from the current law that regulates them."
Buckley predicted the bill as "dead-on-arrival" in the Senate, but said he would still like to see some collaborative efforts between various local logging and environmental interest groups.