The House approved legislation on Wednesday intended to reduce the risk of wildfires, as the government struggles to respond to the most expensive year ever for this type of natural disaster.
“This is a bill based on a simple idea — that we must do more to expand active management in federal forests," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "With this bill, we tackle not only the symptoms of the crisis but also its root causes. We provide the resources for our fire-fighters, but also tools for our land managers to improve conditions on the ground and proactively mitigate the threat of wildfire.”
The Resilient Federal Forests Act, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark. -- a licensed forester -- passed by a vote of 232 to 188.
As wildfires rage across the West, Congress has disagreed over how to help fund wildfire response and impose forest management changes that can prevent fires from starting.
Westerman's bill passed the Natural Resources Committee in June, and a previous version of it passed the full House with the support of 20 Democrats before dying in the Senate.
The legislation would allow the Forest Service to thin the trees in forests up to 30,000 acres using a shorter environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Forest Service then could more quickly pursue what are known as "forest management projects," in which the agency removes dead or dying timber and sells it to mills, and then can use the proceeds to care for the forests and make them more resilient to wildfires.
Some Democrats and environmentalists say that approach weakens environmental reviews too much and encourages litigation against the Forest Service.
“House Republicans seem to think every disaster and every hardship our country faces is an exciting opportunity for another industry giveaway,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat in the Natural Resources Committee. “The Americans across the West whose homes burned to the ground this year aren’t interested in whether Congress can make timber companies a few extra bucks. This bill is a shameful waste of everyone’s time. It isn’t even designed to pass the Senate -- it’s designed to pass the House and die in the Senate, and that’s what we’re about to see happen.”
Bishop had previously said he might be willing to support a more narrow bill, meant as a compromise, proposed by a bipartisan group of senators. Senate Democrats are unlikely to support the Westerman bill as it is.
The passage of the Westerman bill comes after catastrophic wildfires hit Northern California last month, killing more than 40 people and burning in excess of 200,000 acres.