Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines and California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a bipartisan bill Tuesday aimed at protecting communities by increasing forest management and reducing environmental litigation.
The Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020 would grant broad authority to federal agencies to push fuels reduction projects, create a new center providing training on prescribed fire and allow projects to proceed while agencies consult over species listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The senators first announced their intention to introduce the bill last year following a record 2017 wildfire season in Montana and fires near Paradise, California, that killed 85 people and destroyed 15,000 homes. Daines said the two spent the last year going back and forth on provisions of the bill, speaking to interested parties and securing sponsors of companion legislation in the House.
“The reason we spent so much time up front is because we want to actually see an outcome, we want to see a bill that isn’t just a press release, we want to see a bill signed into law,” Daines said in an interview.
Fire seasons have grown longer in recent years in the West because of hotter, drier summers driven by climate change. At the same time, forests have seen outbreaks of insects and disease that complicate firefighting and homes have increasingly gone up in wildlands.
News of the bill drew statements of support from several organizations including the American Forest Resource Council, the National Association of Counties and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The groups all noted their support in seeing federal agencies increase the pace and scale of forestry projects.
Those opposing increased forest management often cite the inefficacy of fuels reduction projects in stopping wildfires, noting that extreme weather typically drives the most intense blazes and that building in the wildland-urban interface exacerbates the challenge for firefighters. Groups litigating logging and prescribed burning projects also often cite concerns about compromising habitat for wildlife including certain federally protected species.
The bill proposes multiple areas of reform or new programs:
The legislation requires the Forest Service to conduct three major fuels reduction projects in the West. The projects must be proposed by governors and include provisions narrowing legal reviews.
The legislation encourages federal agencies to increase the use of wildfire detection equipment.
The act creates a new categorical exclusion, which excepts certain projects from full environmental review, aimed at increasing fuels reduction near roads, trails and transmission lines. Daines’ office noted that most human-caused wildfires start in close proximity to roads.
The bill pushes emergency declaration for post-fire analysis and work and exempts certain projects from administrative objections.
The legislation attempts to limit environmental litigation. Specifically, the bill says that “new information” about species listed under the Endangered Species Act must meet certain standards and that projects may proceed while agencies such as the Forest Service complete required consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The bill allows FEMA funds to be used to either bury or install fire-resistant power lines.
The legislation creates a new grant program encouraging biomass production for power. The bill also creates a grant program for nonprofits, educational institutions and state agencies for workforce development in the forestry industry.
The act establishes a “prescribed fire center” in the West to offer training in the use of prescribed fire in fuels reduction.
Daines said one of the major motivations for the bill is developing jobs in the timber industry.
While each lumber mill faces unique challenges, Montana mills as a whole do face a challenge with maintaining a supply of logs, Todd Morgan, the director of Forest Industry Research at the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said in a previous interview.
Supply issues include changing land ownership with industrial timber lands that lead to longer haul distances, litigation, as well as factors that affect quality of timber, including fires, drought and beetle-kill.
Daines also cited public health as a driving force behind the bill.
“We’ve always talked about the importance of protecting public health and public safety. That’s something we’ve talked about with wildfire management and preventing them and minimizing them when we talk about forest management reform,” Daines said. “But I think with COVID concerns now it becomes even more important now in protecting our communities, families and our first responders. Smoke is a real health hazard and when you’re breathing in smoke combined with the COVID risk, we now have a recipe for something really serious.”
Daines said he hopes to see the bill receive a hearing in September and move in the Senate by the end of the year. California Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa and Democratic Rep. Jimmy Panetta plan to introduce companion legislation in the House.