Emily Yehle, E&E reporter
Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management top leaders voiced support last week for the “goals” of Republican legislation to prevent and slow the spread of invasive species on federal lands.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining, introduced S. 2240 to address what he calls “gaps” in how the federal government combats invasive species.
During a subcommittee hearing yesterday, he emphasized how invasive cheatgrass has sucked up scarce water in his state and raised the threat of wildfire.
“The worst part is that cheatgrass is only one of many invasive species we face. Zebra and quagga mussels threaten our aquatic ecosystems and cause millions of dollars in damage to dams, municipal water systems and agricultural irrigation systems,” Barrasso said. “Lands and waters are under constant threat from invasive populations.”
The tone of the hearing was congenial, reflecting agreement among Republicans and Democrats that the federal government needs to do more to prevent and control invasive species.
But several provisions of Barrasso’s bill face opposition, including the expansion of so-called categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act. Such exemptions would allow the administration to forgo comprehensive environmental reviews for certain high-risk sites.
Mike Pool, BLM acting deputy director, said his department “supports the goals of this legislation.” But he raised concerns that the NEPA provision would prevent adequate consideration of the impacts of invasive species control activities, which could include the use of pesticides.
“You want to inform the public. You want them to be part of the solution,” he said, pointing out that actions could be mechanical, chemical or even prescribed fire. “All of those can have different consequences in trying to address the infestation and the mitigation associated with it.”
Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief Glenn Casamassa similarly warned against what he called “overly broad” categorical exclusions that might threaten collaborative work with stakeholders.
Instead, he said the Forest Service “could support a call for a rulemaking to establish any appropriate and necessary categorical exclusions for invasive species.”
George Beck, a professor of weed science at Colorado State University, had a different view. The NEPA process, he said, can take too long, likening the spread of invasive species to a dangerous fire. Both need immediate action.
“NEPA’s a very important process, but when the process gets in the way of biology, that’s very difficult to accept,” Beck said.
Another controversial provision in Barrasso’s bill is an across-the-board requirement that Interior and the Department of Agriculture — which house BLM and the Forest Service, respectively — reduce the prevalence of invasive species each year by 5 percent.
“That sounds like a worthy goal, except we may not really be able to objectively get to that,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). Estimating the size of a population can be challenging, she said, when the invasive species is an insect or a forest pathogen.
Hirono also questioned the bill’s requirement that 75 percent of the agencies’ invasive species funding go to on-the-ground control and management. That could be too “prescriptive,” she said.
— Originally published by Environment and Energy Daily. Contact E&E publishing for permission to republish.