In a political era when Republicans and Democrats rarely agree on anything, the catastrophic wildfire season now raging across the American west could prove compelling enough to rally bipartisan support for legislation to change how forests are managed.
That is the hope of Sens. Steve Daines and Dianne Feinstein; one a Montana Republican the other a California Democrat, who on Wednesday spoke in common support of the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act, a bill that would substantively alter fire suppression practices in the United States.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
“We are at a critical time,” Daines said in his remarks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee. “The West is burning. People are dying. The smoke literally is starting to cover our country, and our way of life as we know it is in danger.
“We can’t run to our corners, we can’t continue to fall to partisan politics. It’s a time to come together, Democrat and Republican, and pass meaningful forestry reform. This bipartisan bill does just that.”
Daines and Feinstein collaborated on the language of the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act throughout the past year. In August 2019 the two senators announced they would work together to take “concrete, meaningful steps” to improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires.
Feinstein is credited as the primary sponsor of the bill.
“California’s traditional fire season has only just started, but five of California’s largest fires in history have occurred this year,” she said at the outset of her testimony. “As I speak, 25 major fires are burning across 3.2 million acres statewide. Twenty-five Californians have died in these fires, 4,200 homes and structures have been destroyed, and more than 42,000 people have been evacuated.
Montana fires:See a map of the wildfires burning across the state
Montana Senator Steve Daines (left) and California Senator Dianne Feinstein confer during Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee.
“The largest fire in state history is now burning in the Mendocino State Forest. It’s 875,000 acres. All told, 3.2 million have burned so far this year, the most in state history.
“The same is happening across the West. We have to change our approach in dealing with wildfire and how we manage our forests. We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
The 53-page legislative proposal details efforts from expanded use of satellite data to assist wildfire response to improving energy resilience through the use of renewable energy microgrids, but its primary focus is upon four key proposals;
1.) Expedite environmental reviews regarding the installation of fuel breaks near existing roads, trails and transmission lines. This would allow the Forest Service to quickly implement hazardous fuel removal projects deemed critical to protecting life, property, or natural and cultural resources.
2.) Increase the use of mechanical thinning and proscribed burns to help prevent forests from becoming overgrown and more susceptible to unstoppable fires. The bill establishes a new Western Proscribed Fire Center to coordinate research and training of foresters and forest managers in best practices.
3.) Establish a $100 million biomass infrastructure program that would providegrant funding for biomass facilities near forests at high risk for wildfire, and to 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.
4.) Expand the Energy Conservation and Production Act to provide increased financial assistance to property owners, up to $16,000, for the retrofit of homes with fire- and drought-resistant building materials.
A complete copy of the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act can be found at www.congress.gov/116/bills/s4431/BILLS-116s4431is.pdf
In this July 31, 2019 file photo Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., walks to the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington. Bot Senators Feinstein and Daines R-Mont. spoke in support of their Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act on Wednesday.
Daines has also emphasized provisions within the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act 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,” he said this past August. “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.”
During his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee Daines sought to debunk some of what he described as “myths” surrounding the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act.
“Some have said this legislation undermines environmental law and skirts judicial review,” Daines said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. This bipartisan bill uses time-tested approaches to expedite and streamline critical projects without circumventing public input or environmental review. Bipartisan policies enacted in 2014 and 2018 serve as the foundation for these provisions proving it is truly a bipartisan compromise.”
The Republican senator also highlighted his unlikely collaboration with a California Democrat.
This Nov. 15, 2018, aerial file photo shows the remains of residences leveled by the Camp wildfire in Paradise, Calif. Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Steve Daines of Montana said on Aug. 1, 2019, they are working with U.S. Forest Service officials on finalizing a bill to reduce the risk posed by out-of-control wildfires.
“It’s not too often that a Republican from Montana and a Democrat for California are locking arms here and join together to address an issue here to keep communities safer through better forest management,” Daines said.
Daines and Feinstein share a significant history together. A long-standing tradition within the U.S. Senate pairs incoming freshman senators with experienced mentors from across party lines. In 2015, as he was entering his first term as a Montana senator, Daines chose Feinstein as his Democratic mentor.
“I’m grateful that I’m here with Sen. Feinstein today,” Daines said during his initial remarks. “We have been working together on this important piece of legislation that addresses the issue of forest management – being better stewards of our forests.”
“We say in Montana either we’re going to better manage our forests or our forests are going to mange us,” he added.
No date has been set for a vote by the subcommittee on the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act, but Daines has expressed optimism that it could be signed into law before the end of the year.