E&E News: Wildfire bill passes; more hurdles ahead

Wildfire bill passes; more hurdles ahead
 Marc Heller, E&E News reporter
Published: Thursday, November 2, 2017
The House yesterday passed legislation encouraging more logging on national forests as a way to curtail wildfires, and supporters said they hope at least some of its provisions are enacted into law this year.
The “Resilient Federal Forests Act,” H.R. 2936, was approved by a vote of 232-188.
In a nod to a potentially complicated path forward, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), urged colleagues to support the bill “or at least something similar” so that legislation could reach a conference with the Senate.
Westerman’s bill doesn’t have a close companion bill in the Senate, although Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and others have proposed legislation with expanded categorical exclusions of 6,000 acres (E&E News PM, Oct. 23).
H.R. 2936 is part of a broader debate in Congress about how to respond to and prevent big wildfires, which have affected more than 8 million acres this year, including more than 2 million acres on national forest land.
Westerman, who has a master’s degree in forestry, said the bill’s approach to forest management – increased forest thinning – is based on sound science showing actively managed forests are healthier and less prone to catastrophic fire.
That’s a contentious point with some researchers who say more logging actually increases fire risk while hurting wildlife habitat, and Democratic critics called the measure a giveaway to the timber industry, which has clamored for more access to national forests.
The measure would expand to 10,000 acres the amount of land that could be excluded from certain reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act for forest management projects. In some cases, such “categorical exclusions” could reach 30,000 acres as long as local officials are involved in the decisionmaking.
Those provisions would give the Forest Service tools it can use “on day one” after enactment to treat more forests for wildfire potential, said House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah).
It also relies on budget cap adjustments to provide a funding stream for wildfire response, which Westerman said will eliminate the need for borrowing money from non-fire-related accounts – a practice that has taken hundreds of millions of dollars from other accounts this year. And it seeks to rein in lawsuits by establishing an arbitration process pilot program to handle objections to forest management projects.
The mechanics of budgeting pose a challenge with the Trump administration, which said Tuesday that Westerman’s bill could force the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take money away from more traditional natural disasters, like tornadoes and hurricanes, in order to address wildfire emergencies.
Westerman told E&E News he believes lawmakers can work through that disagreement, which he called a misunderstanding on the administration’s part. “I think we’ll work that out,” said Westerman, who added that he has meetings scheduled with officials from FEMA and the administration.
“I don’t think they understand what we’re trying to do because we’re actually raising the disaster cap in FEMA, which helps FEMA out,” Westerman said. “This benefits FEMA, not just in this area but in many other areas, so I don’t understand what their beef is with it.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue praised the bill in a statement but fell short of calling it a solution.
“This legislation helps facilitate the conversation about Forest Service funding, which continues to be a problem as we face escalating costs in battling wildfires,” Perdue said. “As the legislative process continues, I look forward to working with Congress as we all seek a comprehensive solution to put America’s forests back to work again.”
‘A work in progress’
Lawmakers approved amendments striking “produce timber” as a forest management activity designated for categorical exclusions from NEPA and requiring the Forest Service to study the feasibility of drones in wildfire management, among other provisions.
Republicans touted the bill as bipartisan, and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) said in floor debate that “these kinds of fires know no political boundaries.” But the final vote was lopsided, with 10 Democrats voting for it and 179 opposed.
Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) called congressional action “long overdue” and said he would support adjustments later on, such as smaller categorical exclusions and tweaks to the budgeting of emergency funds.
“This is a work in progress, and we can work on that,” Costa said.
Other Democrats said the bill would weaken environmental laws and leave the Forest Service short of money for fire suppression. That’s a position echoed by many environmental groups, which say the emphasis should be on boosting the Forest Service budget.
“The bill does little to fix the true problem of wildfire management,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.).
Other Democrats said the legislation misses what they consider the point of the Forest Service’s challenges – money. Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.) said his state has more than a million acres of national forest awaiting management projects that have already passed environmental reviews and are awaiting funding.
The following amendments were approved by voice vote:
·         An amendment by Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) striking timber production as a forest management activity. Timber is a byproduct, not a management activity, he said.
·         An amendment by Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) requiring the Department of Agriculture to study the feasibility of using drones for fire suppression as well as forest management.
·         An amendment by DeFazio adding land exclusions for the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area and lands managed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Wilderness Act, and National Trails System.
The House approved an amendment by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), for a pilot program demonstrating effective tools for safeguarding natural resources, on a vote of 237-181.
Lawmakers rejected amendments striking the bill’s arbitration provisions, striking sections exempting forest plans from consideration as “major federal actions” under NEPA and giving the government more leeway in use of categorical exclusions.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) withdrew an amendment to create an occupation of “wildland firefighter” under federal personnel rules.