Daines Calls for Passage of bipartisan 9th Circuit Cottonwood fix, highlights efforts to support wildland firefighters at Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

U.S. SENATE – U.S. Senator Steve Daines today called attention to the serious threat of wildfires as smoke covers East Coast skies and highlighted the importance of passing his full and permanent fix for the 9th Circuit Cottonwood decision.

Click HERE to download his remarks.

Daines: When you woke up this morning in Washington, you might have opened your windows up and heard the birds coughing outside. It’s no secret that wildfire season is upon us. My guess is that folks on the East Coast are already sick of the smoke. We’re already hearing about ground stops at the Philadelphia airport, slowdowns at LaGuardia because of visibility issues with the smoke.

Look, this is what we deal with out West virtually every summer. I keep beautiful pictures of the landscapes of Montana, my hometown there in the Gallatin Valley so that when we have our friends during tourist season and family that come out to Montana, I can show them the pictures of what the mountains look like if you could see them, but they’re covered up in smoke oftentimes when we turn the corner in July, August and into September. We’re sick of that smoke. I know the folks on the East Coast are and we need to do something to try to reduce the risk of these fires.

What happens in Montana is that we have environmental groups who litigate and stop forest treatment projects with a sympathetic judge or two within the 9th Circuit Court. We end up tying some 130,000,000 board feet of timber in Montana tied up in litigation.

Look, this is not about trying to make ideological points at the moment. I’m focused on solving this problem. There’s no doubt we’ve got longer fire seasons, we’ve got warmer summers. So, what’s the mitigation strategy going to be as we try to address this core problem? Forest treatment projects should be one of our deployed strategies. We’ve got to cut the red tape. We’ve got to combat the fringe litigation. We’ve got to solve this problem. If we don’t act, these catastrophic wildfires will continue to threaten lives. They’ll burn millions of acres a year, spending untold millions of dollars in fighting these fires, putting firefighters at risk. Tragically, we lose the lives, lives are lost with our firefighters every fire season. Billions of dollars of infrastructure destroyed and our forest communities put at risk. They’re getting harder to fight. They’re getting more dangerous to fight. Because we haven’t addressed reducing fuel loads, these fires get hotter, and frankly, they’re even more catastrophic. The Forest Service and DOI together now have over 100 million acres at high risk of wildfire. These are a tinder box. They’re waiting to burn if we don’t make some changes on how we manage our public lands.

Forest Service Deputy Chief Hall-Rivera agreed that Daines’ 9th Circuit Cottonwood fix is needed in order to combat catastrophic wildfires.

Daines: On May 17, my bipartisan 9th Circuit Cottonwood fix legislation passed out of this committee by a voice vote. I’m thankful, grateful for my colleagues on both sides of this dais who unanimously supported the voice vote to move that forward out of committee. Getting this fixed sign in the law by the President is vital since needed forest management needs to continue versus being delayed by litigation.

You talk to anybody who’s close to this problem. They’ll tell you, get that 9th Circuit Cottonwood fix signed into law and we suddenly have reduced one of the major barriers to treatment and forest management…

Forest Service Chief Moore and Deputy Chief French have both testified that the re-consultation requirement on the 87 forest plans will negatively impact the Forest Service work to prevent out of control wildfires. This ties right back to that 9th Circuit Cottonwood problem.

Deputy Chief Hall-Rivera, do you agree with them that the 9th Circuit Cottonwood re-consultation requirement will delay landscape scale management that is needed to help combat catastrophic wildfires?

Forest Service Deputy Chief Hall-Rivera: Yes, Senator, I would concur with what the Chief and Deputy Chief French have already put on the record.

Daines then highlighted his bipartisan bills that were signed into law to better support wildland firefighters.

Download the exchange HERE.

Daines: Thank you for that response. Over the past two decades, wildfires have become hotter, longer burning, more damaging and let’s not forget that a catastrophic wildfire is a carbon emitter. A healthy, vibrant forest is a carbon sink. We now talk about having a fire year versus a fire season. This puts strain on wildland firefighters. Year after year, they battle at more complex, dangerous fires for longer. In 2021, I worked on a bipartisan manner with Senator Feinstein to secure recognition of the work that wildland firefighters do by passing our bill to create a title that reflects their actual job of fighting fires and getting them a badly needed pay raise.

Director Rupert and Deputy Chief Hall-Rivera could you talk briefly, because I’m out of time, about how the title changes and the pay increase has impacted recruitment and retention of wildlife firefighters at the agencies?

Department of the Interior Office of Wildland Fire Director Rupert: Yeah, thank you. Really briefly, it certainly helped. I’m aware that we’ve seen firefighters that have made a decision or delayed retirement as a result of the support, the increased support as well as on then the recruitment side. We have had success recruiting additional firefighters and have continued to focus on expanding our capacity and recognize an important part of that effort is not only the pay support, but also the support for a full career that goes along with all of the work, for example, that’s been done to establish the new series.

Daines: Any additional comments there?

Hall-Rivera: Yeah, Senator, I would just say that we know that the temporary bill pay increase has helped us retain some of our workforce who might have left otherwise, and certainly has brought some new workers into our firefighting workforce. And that’s why it’s absolutely critical that we avert the pay cliff and put something permanent into place.

Daines: Thank you. And that pay cliff is September, by the way, where this pay raise expires unless we take action here in Congress. Thank you.