Floor Speech

Date: May 18, 2023
Location: Washington, DC


Mrs. FEINSTEIN. Madam President, I rise today to introduce the Community Wood Facilities Assistance Act of 2023 and thank my colleagues, Senators Collins, Shaheen, and Kelly, for joining me as original cosponsors of the bill.

This bill will assist with the construction of facilities that make sustainable use of small-diameter timber from forest-thinning projects and other needed treatments in eastern and western forests.

In doing so, the bill would also create jobs in rural and forest- dependent communities while decreasing wildfire risk in our vulnerable forests.

The Forest Service reports that 80 million acres of Forest Service lands are at risk of catastrophic wildfire or abnormal levels of insect and disease infestations.

These impacts are only made worse by historic levels of drought. In California alone, 129 million trees have died across 8.9 million acres due to drought and bark beetles. Thirty-six million of those tree deaths were in 2022, triple the number from the previous year. This is clearly a crisis.

Removing select small trees and other hazardous fuels in our forests are critical for preserving our forests over the long term. Not only does this ease the competition large trees face for water, it also reduces the spread of bark beetles and makes the forest less susceptible to catastrophic wildfire.

Between the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress has provided billions of dollars for hazardous fuels reduction and forest thinning work. What is needed now is the economic infrastructure to support this work.

Unfortunately, the number of sawmills, bioenergy facilities, and other forest-product companies have been shrinking for decades. This is due in part to increased production efficiency, but in other instances, market instability forced the closure of many large mills.

One result of the decrease in sawmills is the inability for the market to react nimbly to supply and demand. In 2020, even though massive wildfires should have meant a boom in salvageable trees, the COVID-19 pandemic constrained mill capacity and throughput. This constraint, along with a surge in consumer demand, led to a near 400 percent increase in lumber prices, which are only now resolving.

An analysis by The Nature Conservancy and Bain and Company management consultants recommended incentives to ``bridge the gap between the cost of ecological thinning and the economic viability of wood-processing infrastructure.''

As the report explains, ``If more aggressive restoration targets can be met, there will be significant need for additional processing capacity to defray restoration costs and provide valuable end uses for thinned material.''

Our bill would make targeted changes to existing Forest Service grant programs to help the forest product industry grow and provide outlets for the billions of acres of wood that will result from the investments made in the bipartisan infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act.

The two grant programs we target in this bill are the Community Wood Energy and Wood Innovations Grant Program and the Wood Innovations Program.

These programs would benefit from changes, particularly from higher Federal cost-shares and an increased ability to provide more funding for each project, in addition to a higher authorized funding.

The first of these, the Community Wood Energy and Wood Innovations Grant Program, provides grants for the capital cost of small wood products facilities. Our bill would first change the name to avoid confusion with the Wood Innovations Program.

Our bill would also double the authorization level to $50 million per year, allow the program to fund new facility construction in addition to improvements. The maximum grant amount would also increase from $1 to $5 million, and the Federal cost share would increase from 35 percent to 50 percent, making it easier for small companies to use.

Our bill will also revise the Forest Service's Wood Innovations Grant Program, which provides grants for innovative uses and applications of wood products and the expansion of related markets. It would similarly allow this program to be used for new facilities in addition to retrofits and improvements and lower the minimum non-Federal cost-share from 50 percent to 33.3 percent.

Congress has an opportunity this year to make these important changes to these grant programs and help stimulate a self-sustaining forest product economy and promote healthier forests. I thank Senators Collins, Shaheen, and Kelly for their partnership on this bill, and I urge the full Senate to promptly take up this bill and pass it as soon as possible.