A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Thursday intended to reduce the risk of wildfires, as the government struggles to respond to the most expensive year ever for fighting fires.
Five Western senators introduced a bill that is intended to be a compromise between competing factions in Congress who are weighing how to help fund wildfire response while imposing forest management changes that can prevent fires from starting.
"It's time to create new tools to reduce fire risk and help better protect our communities," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who sponsored the legislation with Sens. James E. Risch, R-Idaho, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, and Patty Murray, D-Wash.
The bill would create a pilot program to stop wildfires in the ponderosa pines, which are a vulnerable species of tree prevalant in the West.
It would streamline the environmental review process to allow for forest managers to more quickly thin the pine trees. The process removes trees to reduce the density of forests, shrinking the fuel load for wildfires.
"By targeting our most vulnerable pine forests, this science-based pilot program gives the Forest Service tools to address fire in our most vulnerable forests and prioritizes cross-laminated timber," Cantwell said.
The bill was quickly endorsed by the timber industry, firefighting, and conservation groups, including the American Forest Resource Council, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the National Wildlife Federation.
But the big test will come in the House, where Republicans have called for a more comprehensive forest management response.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is pushing for passage of a bill sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., that would allow the Forest Service to thin trees in forests that are 10,000 acres or less 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.
Katie Schoettler, a Natural Resources Committee spokesman, told the Washington Examiner that Bishop is open to the more narrow Senate approach introduced Thursday.
"We are glad to see the Senate finally embracing the streamlining of environmental reviews to get our forests back on track," Schoettler said. "The bill includes some concepts in the Westerman bill to address our forest crisis. We look forward to working with the Senate to consider robust forest management legislation to prevent future wildfires and protect communities."
The new approach, and the potential for consensus, comes after catastrophic wildfires hit Northern California over the last week and a half, killing more than 40 people and burning in excess of 200,000 acres.
The fires have compounded funding woes at the Forest Service, which in recent years has had to borrow from other accounts because its firefighting funding runs out.
Under current law, forest fires are not treated the same as other natural disasters such as hurricanes. That forces the Forest Service to take money from accounts dedicated to preventative maintenance, such as clearing underbrush.
Republicans and Democrats agree about wanting to address the funding issue, but have disagreed over whether and how to pair that with forest management reforms.
Robert Bonnie, who was the Department of Agriculture's undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment in the Obama administration, is hopeful the new Senate bill represents a middle ground.
But he notes the legislation could go further. The ponderosa pine pilot program would only cover 1 percent of land managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Bonnie said other tree species are succeptible to fire and could benefit from forest management.
"Arguably, the Westerman bill goes too far in granting large categorical exclusions [from environmental reviews]," Bonnie told the Washington Examiner. "This bill takes a more targeted approach. But the fire problem is not just a ponderosa pine problem. It's a problem in lot of forest types. That's the limitation of the Cantwell approach."