Court Endangers State’s Forest Products Jobs
December 9, 2011
While business owners nationwide carefully monitor local, state and federal legislation that impacts their industries, the unfortunate reality is that judicial decisions often have just as dramatic an impact on their bottom line. One example is a recent ruling from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that has caused more than a few ripples of concern throughout the forest products industries.
The court decided that ditches and channels that collect storm water runoff on logging roads — the roads that provide access to forests — are “point sources” of pollution. In other words, storm water will be regulated on par with coal plant and industrial mine discharges.
This overreach subjects those who own or manage these farm or logging roads to a burdensome permitting process, unprecedented in its scope. The ruling upends decades of existing forestry regulation whereby states regulate roads using best management practices and following general Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
In fact, the EPA vigorously defended the current regulatory scheme before the Ninth Court, but many fear the agency might accept the court’s ruling and apply the new permitting requirements nationally. Heavy-handed regulation of the forest products industry will disproportionately harm Michigan.
Our state maintains the fifth-highest amount of forest acreage in the United States. Michigan has 19.3 million acres of forests, and our forest products industry employs more than 150,000 people and accounts for 10 percent of the state’s manufacturing jobs. The industry contributes over $12 billion to our state’s economy each year and our forests, both public and private, provide Michiganders with countless outdoor recreation opportunities.
But what’s so wrong with stricter permitting rules?
As with permits for power plants or industrial facilities, each of these new logging road permits will be subject to costs, lawsuits and challenges, adding uncertainty and disruption to operating schedules as the details are fought out in the courts. Thousands of permit applications will flood into the EPA, causing further backlog and delays as the federal government scrutinizes ditches and culverts over millions of acres of land.
As job providers spend more time and resources on paperwork, defending their operations and waiting for approval to do business, output will decrease and jobs will be lost. Far from affecting a small group of wealthy land owners, the rule will impact a large segment of the U.P., including tourism, recreation, hunting, fishing, logging and wood and paper manufacturing. Small and large businesses that produce and sell cabinets, furniture, flooring, pulp, paper, paperboard, lumber, panel board, plywood, oriented strand board — the list goes on — will be impacted.
Thousands of acres of public forest land may be off-limits. Jobs are at stake. Many businesses may go under. Michigan’s rural communities are completely dependent on these forest-based businesses to provide the economic lifeblood for an already fragile infrastructure. As prohibitive regulations go into effect, these rural Michigan economies will struggle to maintain an adequate tax base and provide essential services.
Further, these new federal permits add little to no benefit over our existing state-based regulations, and may actually be worse for Michigan’s natural environment.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources have been tough but fair in setting appropriate standards for monitoring our forests and logging roads, while adhering to robust EPA guidelines. Our state constantly updates and refines our practices, as analysis for what works and what doesn’t is integrated into our best management practices. The state Senate agreed, passing SCR 20 in committee two weeks ago. The Senate resolution urges Congress to classify forestry management activities as nonpoint sources under the federal Clean Water Act.
Forests are a long-term investment and owners depend on a stable regulatory environment and a reasonable economic return in order to make them affordable to manage and economically competitive with other land uses. If that delicate balance is threatened, as this rule promises to do, forests will quickly be converted to other uses.
Fortunately, bipartisan support for solving this problem exists in Congress. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a longtime supporter of forests and the Clean Water Act, has sponsored the Silviculture Regulatory Consistency Act. The list of supporters from both political parties is long and growing. This legislation deserves support from our congressional delegation.
It is our hope that the Obama Administration will work together with Sen. Wyden, his colleagues in the Senate and with the Michigan congressional delegation to pass this legislation. It will restore 35 years of progress and protect much needed jobs in our industry, rather than begin a new era of legal wrangling over this issue. The U.P. and Northern Michigan’s economic future is at stake.