Daines wildfire bill would speed forestry work

Smoke from the West Coast wildfires helped set the stage for a Washington, D.C., hearing on a new wildfire and forest management bill backed by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana.

“The West is burning, people are dying, and the smoke is literally starting to cover our country,” Republican Daines said during a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. “Our way of life as we know it is in danger.”

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein partnered with Daines to produce the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act (S.4431). It would give the U.S. Forest Service expanded categorical exclusion powers to cut fire breaks up to 3,000 acres large along roads, trails and power lines; accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation work up to 10,000 acres large without administrative review; and create a new prescribed fire research center to direct more forest fuels reduction burning.

Feinstein opened with a blunt recounting of fire impacts in her state of California: 25 major fires burning this year including the largest in state history at 875,000 acres; 25 Californians killed; 4,200 homes and structures burned down and 42,000 people evacuated.

“We have to change our approach in dealing with wildfire and our national forests,” Feinstein said. She touted the bill’s $100 million grant program to make the removal of dead trees commercially viable, along with its provisions to help people fire-proof their homes, bury high-voltage power lines and increase the use of wildfire detection equipment in forests.

“Climate change is making these fires worse by the year,” Feinstein said. “We’ve got to address it.”

Daines said the bill would streamline critical projects without circumventing environmental policies or judicial review. It also contains provisions to block a recent court ruling that requires the Forest Service to do extensive Endangered Species Act consultations when new scientific information indicates agency actions might affect at-risk animal habitat. And it proposes new landscape-level collaborative wildfire risk-reduction projects that could go forward with high barriers to legal challenges.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow asked why the streamlining was needed after Congress had already granted numerous categorical exclusions and exemptions from the National Environmental Policy Act to the Forest Service in its previous three sessions. That included billions of dollars for more prescribed burning by putting the agency’s firefighting expenses in a separate account from its routine activity, called “fire-borrowing.”

“Instead of that being used to reduce wildfire risk, the Trump Administration has cut the Forest Service budget,” Stabenow said. “I am truly concerned and don’t understand why the administration is not fully implementing the tools we’ve already given them.”

Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French said the elimination of fire-borrowing that took effect this year has helped the agency stay on track with post-fire restoration work. But it remained bogged down with the amount of analysis it still needs to do on forest activity.

“The reality is the average environmental assessment for a fuels-reduction project takes somewhere around 685 days,” French said. “With the new categorical exclusions, it’s around 243 days. Our biggest issue is a matter of scale.”

Scale was on the minds of most committee members during the hearing. Committee Chairman Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, noted that almost half a million people had to be evacuated in the past week due to fires “that could have been prevented if only active management practices had been implemented.” He said forest management had been hamstrung by excessive regulation such as Clean Air Act provisions that prevented prescribed burning due to air pollution concerns.

Co-chairman Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, called on Congress to step up its pace in dealing with the fire issue.

“Scores of fires have hit my state harder than a wrecking ball,” Wyden said. “These are not your grandfather’s fires. They’re bigger, hotter, more dangerous and more powerful.”

The Senate committee members did not vote on the measure on Wednesday.