By U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.)
As published in The Hill newspaper, August 19, 2020
COVID-19 has exposed many Americans to important aspects of our supply chain that, during normal times, usually go unnoticed. Forest products are a perfect example. When the virus struck, grocery store shelves quickly ran out of toilet paper and paper towels, and everyone became aware of just how important a role forestry plays in our daily life. From shipping boxes on your doorstep, to pallets that make shipping possible, to the wooden desk at which you sit, forest products are instrumental to our way of life.
This is why I wrote to President Donald Trump and asked him to exempt H-2B visas for forestry workers from any future executive action. Seventeen of my Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives joined me on this letter. On Aug. 12, the administration granted our request, allowing temporary forestry workers to come to the U.S. to work in the industry.
Initially, Presidential Proclamations 10014 and 10052 banned most nonimmigrant H-2B guest workers from entering the United States through Dec. 31, 2020, including those fulfilling forestry-related visas. This well-intended measure was designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, the forest products industry estimated these proclamations would ultimately cost American companies at least $725 million in lost seedlings, direct labor costs and cancelled contracts. These companies exist and operate primarily in rural communities nationwide, including many in my home state of Arkansas.
Forestry-related work is the second-largest recipient of the H-2B visa program. In Fiscal Year 2019, employers requested 11,283 nonimmigrant workers. Forestry H-2B labor differs from other industries, as forest crews often travel to multiple states to plant trees, reforest after wildfire and accomplish other work vital for forest and economic health. It is demanding manual labor, often preformed in challenging terrain and adverse weather. Employers are required by law to first offer these jobs to American citizens, but due to the frequent relocation, many of the positions remain open for guest workers.
So why this exemption? H-2B visas were never designed for permanent labor forces and the forest industry is largely seasonal. Without the visa exemption, an estimated 1.6 million acres of forestland would go unplanted this year and nearly 1.12 billion seedlings would die. This makes swift action imperative, to ensure essential forestry operations have enough manpower to continue uninterrupted. Many guest workers in other industries, like agriculture, fall under different visa requirements and thus were not impacted by the initial executive action.
Not only does forestry have a large economic impact, but it’s also central to the conservation of our natural resources. H-2B visas provide the Forest Service with workers to help reforest after wildfire and assist private companies in maintaining state mandated forest-certification requirements. With wildfire season upon us, it’s absolutely necessary that we have all the right resources to keep forests healthy while keeping residents in both urban and rural areas secure.
President Trump’s decision to exempt forest industry workers from the temporary H-2B visa ban is effective immediately, subject to the consular office processing these visas. While COVID-19 has impacted their ability to get through visa applications, I look forward to seeing the State Department process these applications expediently and allow the industry to continue uninterrupted. Planting season begins Oct. 1, so time is of the essence.
As a forester myself, I know firsthand what a demanding yet vital industry this is. We must use every available channel to support the forest industry, now more than ever. These are the people who keep our paper products on the shelves and supply many construction materials, all of which are necessary as we rebuild after COVID-19. I’m grateful to President Trump for responding to our request, and I hope to continue working with the administration on issues that directly impact the American people.
Westerman represents the 4th District of Arkansas and serves on the Committee on Natural Resources.