DeFazio sees ‘collaboration’ as key to forest management

Scott Swanson

Rep. Peter DeFazio has long had a reputation as an independent in Congress, particularly on trade issues, and he was in full voice last week during a stop at The New Era, where he discussed the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and his efforts to address problems in Northwest forests.

DeFazio said he is working to solve problems in Oregon’s forests that would not only improve safety and forest health, but create jobs. He said he thinks the recent massive fires, which resulted in the deaths of four firefighters in Washington in August, may have a silver lining in sensitizing members of Congress to what is going on in overgrown Northwest forests.

“With the fires and that, I think there’s growing awareness that we’ve got some really big forest problems in the western U.S. that have got to be dealt with,” he said. “We’re now bringing in people from New Zealand and Australia. The Forest Service is probably going to spend equal to its whole budget (fighting fires).”

Passing a long-term forest plan for the Oregon and California Railroad Lands (O&C Lands) has been one of DeFazio’s top legislative priorities, he says, and he has been working to create collaborative agreements that will open forests up to thinning and other activities while maintaining some environmental protections.

He said the bill, which passed out of the House earlier this summer, would help the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service by removing “expensive, time-consuming” requirements for surveys and other studies of any proposed timber sales that have been in place for two decades.

“We always thought of this as an interim measure but it’s been here for 22 years,” he said.

DeFazio said the current forest bill uses scientific, peer-reviewed guidelines developed by Oregon State University professor Gordon H. Reeves that, he said, would “free up hundreds of thousands of acres from what, again, were supposed to be interim guidelines.”

If Congress approves the plan, he said, it would create more revenue for O&C counties such as Linn County.

DeFazio said the bill provides incentives for collaboration between parties interested in forest issues.

“The idea is you bring people together, they develop these management visions, and under this bill, if you do that, if they’re following the collaborative agreement, you can’t appeal the actions of the Forest Service. So the idea is to encourage more community participation and cooperation and coordination in these plans. And that would be a really big deal.”

Early participation is also an emphasis, he said.

“If you didn’t meaningfully participate in the process, you can’t appeal. Then you have expedited, shortened appeals, and expedited court proceedings.”

DeFazio noted that the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, itself a response to widespread forest fires during the summer of 2002, prompted concerns from environmental interests which, he said, proved unfounded. Timber sales under Healthy Forests were generally targeted toward fuel reduction and community protection, he said.

“It was very controversial with environmental groups. Well, guess what? It’s actually worked. I don’t even know of any litigation of anything under Healthy Forests.

DeFazio said it might be more difficult to get such collaborative agreements west of the Cascades, “because people just like to fight over here,” but he hopes “people would move in that direction.”

The bill’s success will depend on support from Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, he said. It includes a provision that would transfer financing for serious wildfire suppression efforts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That provision dictates that when fires reach a certain magnitude, they will no longer be paid for from USFS or BLM budgets, but by FEMA.

“What happens every year is fires start, they reach a certain point, and the Forest Service sends out notices to everybody saying ‘stop all fuel-reduction projects – stop this, stop that,’” DeFazio said.

“They cancel thinning projects. This would take care of that problem.”

He said he is working to get “similar language” into a FEMA bill coming out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, of which he is the former chair and now is ranking member.

“I proposed it in the last Congress and couldn’t get it done. I figure if we move it in two different places and, given the magnitude of the fires, maybe we can finally get that done,” he said.

Another big interest for DeFazio has been the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, approved by both houses of Congress earlier this year with fast-track authority for President Obama to negotiate a final version with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.

Critics of the deal have pointed to the secrecy surrounding the document and negotiations, and provisions regarding intellectual property, its favor of the wealthy and large corporations over working classes, and its impacts on the environment.

DeFazio called it “the last, biggest and worst trade deal ever.”

He has been a leading critic of the deal, the principal focus of which, he said, is to set up a “secret tribunal available only to corporations to sue governments because of lost actual or lost potential profits because of laws passed by those governments.”

The agreement, Defazio said, “has very little to do with what we think of as trade barriers, tariffs.”

The 1994 North American Fair Trade Agreement, of which he was a leading opponent, opened the door to similar corporate strategies.

“Under NAFTA, we lost to a bunch of Mexican trucking companies who said, ‘You can’t restrict our truck drivers in your country.’ We lost that case and they imposed massive penalties on us. The U.S. caved in and said, ‘OK, you can drive in the U.S.’”

A similar trade agreement has resulted in a lawsuit by Phillip Morris against the Australian government for requiring labeling on cigarettes.

“Phillip Morris says ‘It hurts our profits,’ so they’re looking to get big damages.”

Another example has occurred in Canada, where a U.S. company, Delaware-based Bilcon, won a $350 million judgment against the Nova Scotia and Canadian governments for rejecting a proposed quarry and port in the Bay of Fundy, an arbitration made possible by NAFTA.

“Basically, this puts at risk any kind of consumer protection law, lots of public safety laws like trucking,” DeFazio said of the Trans Pacific agreement. “It puts at risk labor laws – anything that impinges on corporate profits. It’s unbelievable that this is in there.”

He said Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, who helped create NAFTA, told him, “We didn’t know we were opening the door to regulatory takings. Companies can go outside our court system to these tribunals. It was a huge mistake.”

DeFazio said that if Congress approves the agreement after giving President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the details, a likely result will be pharmaceutical companies suing to limit sales of generic drugs in third-world countries, and negotiations for lower prices with the Veterans Administration and Medicaid.

“I think the pharmaceutical industry would turn around and pre-empt those laws.”

Truck manufacturers like GM and Ford would likely lose market share to Japanese manufacturers, who are currently limited in how many vehicles they can export to the United States.

“This is very dangerous stuff,” DeFazio said. “It’s not about creating jobs in the United States. It’s not about taking down trade barriers.”

DeFazio said he was “amazed” that Republicans would “support giving up all their constitutional authority to Barack Obama to cut a secret trade deal that they would not be allowed to amend, which they could only vote up or vote down.

“I’m hopeful we’ll beat it,” he said. “I’m hopeful they won’t even finish negotiations.”