USA — Debate over forest management is heating up in Washington as the severe 2015 fire season in the West is winding down, and Montana lawmakers are in the thick of it.
Republicans are backing a bill in Congress that would reduce environmental review of projects to speed up tree-thinning work meant to improve forest health while reducing wildfire risk. The bill also would limit what they describe as obstructionist litigation over forest projects.
A similar forest reform bill already has been approved in the House thats now sitting in the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Im confident well get the support we need in terms of getting the support of leadership in the U.S. Senate, said U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
Daines said hes talked to Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., about moving the bill through the Agriculture Committee.
Another option is attaching a healthy forest bill to must-pass highway, omnibus and debt-ceiling legislation, Daines said.
Critics say the Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2015 would make it difficult for the public to challenge forest projects they think are wrong, and wont do much to reduce wildfires or end the problem of rising firefighting costs sapping forest management work.
It would limit who could challenge government decisions to corporations and ultra-rich people, billionaires, said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which sometimes challenges forest management projects that include logging in wildlife habitat.
More than 8.5 million acres have burned nationally, including 338,000 acres in Montana.
That should lead Congress to pass reforms to both improve management of our forests as well as address the wildfire funding challenge, Daines said.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack have called the 2015 fire season a disaster in terms of firefighter lives lost and destroyed homes and natural resources.
Daines and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee, and Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arizona, conducted a conference call with reporters Wednesday about the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015.
They argued the Forest Service needs more leeway to thin forests overloaded with fuels. They added calls by the Obama administration for increasing firefighting funds, while needed, wont address changes in forest management necessary to address core causes of catastrophic wildfires.
We need to have management tools in addition to funds, Bishop said.
In a report released in August, the Forest Service detailed rising costs of fighting fires with more than 50 percent of its budget now going toward suppressing wildfires for the first time in its 110-year history, with firefighting costs reaching a record $240 million in August.
Last week, the administration directed $250 million toward fighting the wildfires in California and elsewhere, in addition to $450 million already transferred from different parts of the federal budget earlier this year to go toward fighting.
Theres no disagreement on the need for changes in how firefighting should be funded, Bishop said.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act already has been introduced in the House and Senate. It would overhaul federal wildfire policy, increase funding for prevention and ensure large forest fires are treated and funded as natural disasters.
But, Bishop said, policy changes also are needed to reduce the number of lawsuits and lengthy environmental reviews in order to speed the pace of timber thinning projects that he argues would improve forest health and make them more fire-resistant.
Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service, said the Republican-backed proposal wouldnt solve the chronic drain of resources away from restoration, watershed protection and other programs as a result of rising firefighting costs.
Congress should pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act instead, he said, which would stop fire transfers and provide the additional resources.
It is a priority of the administration to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire and improve forest health, he said. But in bad fire years, he said, the agency is forced to transfer additional dollars from non-fire accounts to fight fires.
It would be irresponsible to address wildfire funding without passing management reforms, Daines said.
The House passed the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 in July.
Its supporters, including U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., say the legislation attempts to address lengthy and costly planning processes to complete hazardous fuel reduction projects, and the threat of litigation prompting federal land mangers to take an overly cautious approach to forest management.
Westerman is the chief author the bill, which included contributions from Zinke.
On the Senate side, were working with Republicans and Democrats alike to forge a similar consensus and get something to the presidents desk this fall, Daines said.
The House bill would would require certain plaintiffs who sue the Forest Service over logging projects to post a bond to cover the agencys legal expenses, and it would prohibit plaintiffs in lawsuits from seeking a preliminary injunction to temporarily stop activities such as salvage logging on federal lands.
Nobody else who sues the government has to do that, Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies said.
Provisions limiting challenges would violate the First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of a grievance, Garrity said. The Alliance, he added, generally doesnt sue over prescribed fire and thinning projects in the wildland urban interface where structures are located.
The idea were shutting down logging the forest is completely wrong, he said.
Another provision in the bill would require the Forest Service to recover its legal expenses if it wins the lawsuit, or the bond amount.
It helps the forest make better policies because they are not living in fear of a lawsuit, Zinke said. And I think at the heart of it, (the bill) rewards collaborative efforts.
The bill also would allow for expedited environmental review for collaborative projects that involve cooperation between representatives from industry, environmental groups, local and state governments, tribes and other groups.
Dale Bosworth of Missoula, a former chief of the Forest Service, testified in favor of the legislation in the House.
There needs to be some things done to modernize the process so the Forest Service isnt going through so much time in analysis and documentation, Bosworth said. Such a high percentage of dollars they get is going into analysis and documentation and not on the ground.
In hot, dry years such as 2015, there will be fires, regardless, Garrity said.
If you do fire wise measures around your home, your home is likely to survive, he said. But as far as just logging out in the woods, that doesnt do anything to decrease the chances of fire.
Disagreements on litigation remedies and the environmental review reforms are bumps in the road that can be worked out among Republicans and Democrats, who agree the Forest Service needs more management tools, Daines said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he would support a forest management plan that includes timber harvest, recreation and wilderness thats drafted through collaboration.
Unfortunately, this bill is a top-down, Washington-based approach to forest management that fails to improve recreational opportunities in Montanas forests, Tester said. Its chances of passing are diminished as a result. he said.