Daines co-sponsors bill to reduce wildfire, halt ‘frivolous’ environmental lawsuits

Montana Sen. Steve Daines has introduced new legislation meant to reduce the risk of large wildfires on federally managed lands, and to make it harder for environmental groups to halt permitted timber harvests by obtaining federal court injunctions.

Daines announced his submission of the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act during a news briefing on Wednesday, describing it as “a major bi-partisan breakthrough” in the effort to reform forest management practices.

“This is a Democrat from California, (Sen.) Dianne Feinstein, working with a Republican from Montana, myself, because we share a common interest to overcome a problem, and that is to reduce the risk of wildfires,” Daines said.

Daines and Feinstein have been collaborating on a draft of the bill for the past year. In August 2019 the two senators announced they working together to make “concrete, meaningful steps” to improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires.

“Both California and Montana have been facing some major wildfire seasons over the last few years,” Daines said in explaining the intent of the legislation. “This bill will speed up urgently needed projects to reduce wildfire risks, create good paying jobs in the forestry sector, and protect public health and safety. I look forward to working closely with Sen. Feinstein to pass this legislation and send it to the President’s desk.”

Logs stacked up after a permitted operations in Helena – Lewis and Clark National Forest near Augusta
If passed into law, the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act would expedite environmental reviews regarding the installation of fuel breaks near existing roads, trails and transmission lines, and would allow the Forest Service to quickly implement hazardous fuel removal projects to protect life, property, or natural and cultural resources.

The bill also proposes to stimulate private markets for low-value timber. It would establish a $100 million biomass infrastructure program to provide grant funding to build biomass facilities near forests at high risk for wildfire, and would offset the cost of transporting dead and dying trees out of high-hazard fire zones. The bill would also lift the current export ban on unprocessed timber from federal lands for trees that are dead, dying, or if there is no demand for them in the United States.

“The most recent reports tell us that about 1.6 million acres in Montana are at high risk because they are close to communities – as relates to (both) public health and public safety,” Daines said of the bill’s public safety provisions. “As we’re starting to see some active fire developing in Montana, it is timely that we make sure this is something that’s in everybody’s minds.”

Daines also emphasized provisions that would reduce “frivolous litigation” by environmental groups seeking to halt timber harvests.

“There are fringe groups that litigate and they have been prevailing in court,” Daines said. “This sets a higher threshold for what triggers “new information” that has been used to stop a lot of these common sense forestry projects.”

Daines’ reference to “new information” relates to a 2015 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court commonly referred to as “The Cottonwood Decision.” The court ruled the U.S. Forest Service had failed to properly review its previously adopted forest management plans after another federal agency vastly expanded its designation of critical Canada Lynx habitat from 1,841-square-miles to 39,000.

Under Cottonwood, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must now re-initiate wildlife consultations under the Endangered Species Act whenever new critical habitat is designated, a new species is listed or when “new information” becomes available about a species. The end result has been what some critics describe as a “continuous loop” of lawsuits and environmental review.

“When you chat with stakeholders across Montana, it’s these injunctions that are holding up timber projects,” Daines said. “We’ve got conservation groups, we’ve got wildlife groups, we’ve got local stakeholders who will collaborate on a project and then when they move forward on it we have these frivolous, extreme environmentalist litigators who will come in and stop these projects.”

“We’ve got reform in this bill (the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act) that addresses that very issue that will give the Forest Service stronger standing in these lawsuits so we can keep moving forward with these collaborative projects,” he asserted.

In 2017, Daines cosponsored a bill with Sen. Jon Tester (the Wildfire Protection and Mitigation Act), containing many of the same provisions currently included in the bill he just cosponsored with Sen. Feinstein. The Wildfire Protection and Mitigation Act has sat languishing in a Senate committee for two-and half-years now.

Daines said that the extra time he and Feinstein put into drafting the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act increases the likelihood it will pass into law.

“By spending more time up front and getting more unified support for the bill … its going to allow for much better odds on the other side to get this bill actually signed into law,” Daines said.

“We’ve got Republicans and Democrats on the House side behind this,” he added, referring to Representatives Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) and Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), “and remember, I sit on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and that committee will have jurisdiction over this bill.”

“The plans are to have the first hearing on this bill in September, and then we plan to go quickly to a mark-up and get the bill passed into committee,” Daines added. “The goal here is to get the bill out of committee and signed into law before the end of the year.”