Commentary: Bipartisan wildfire prevention fix deserves praise

27 July 2020

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USA – Those of us who live in the West have become all-too-familiar with catastrophic wildfires. Each summer, too many of our communities are susceptible to the devastating impacts of these threats. We’ve also normalized the stifling smoke and haze that frequently blankets our region while the land around us burns.

A significant number of these fires are caused by poorly managed forests and grasslands surrounding power lines and electrical infrastructure. The combination of overgrown vegetation and deferred maintenance backlogs of our nation’s electrical grid continuously put our communities at risk.

Under previous law, it can take months for the U.S. Forest Service to approve the removal of the hazardous vegetation from transmission line rights-of-way — even where trees, plants, and other vegetation are already in contact with transmission lines. This broken — and illogical — regulatory process hinders fire prevention efforts and increases the likelihood of dangerous blackouts.

These risks emphasize the strong need for smarter wildfire prevention policies at all levels, from individual communities to the halls of Congress. Two of my colleagues in the House of Representatives have been leaders in this charge, and they should be commended for their bipartisan efforts.

Reps. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., are both members of the Congressional Western Caucus and strong advocates for smart, responsible land management. In 2017, they introduced the Electric Reliability and Forest Protection Act to reduce overgrown vegetation surrounding power lines. This bipartisan legislation identified the severe delay in approval for requests to remove threatening plant life from transmission line rights-of-way, and in response, sought to streamline the review and approval process for the removal of this dangerous overgrowth. The Electric Reliability and Forest Protection Act empowered local utilities with the authority to proactively, and responsibly, remove trees before they ignited potentially disastrous fires.

Despite strong support from non-partisan groups like the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, American Public Power Association, and Edison Electric Institute, this commonsense reform faced extreme backlash from radical environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, which claimed the legislation would lead to “dousing these lands with herbicides and blindly chopping down every plant in sight.”

This type of deceitful, fear-mongering language sought to inject misinformation into the consideration of this important legislation. Fortunately, the facts and strong merits of the bill prevailed. I was proud to vote alongside an overwhelming bipartisan majority in favor of the Electric Reliability and Forest Protection Act and was pleased to see it become law as part of a larger package in 2018.

Since the legislation’s signing into law, the Trump administration has been working through the federal regulation review process to finally bring this update to fruition. Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced a final rule implementing the changes made in the Electric Reliability and Forest Protection Act to expedite the review process for requests to remove hazardous vegetation around power lines, thereby finally providing a source of relief to our rural communities across the West. The rule goes into effect Aug. 10.

Instead of having to wait months — and even years — to address wildfire threats that could potentially destroy the places we call home, local authorities will now have increased freedoms and responsibilities to make these critical decisions — saving money, property, and lives.

We should be grateful for the leadership of Representatives LaMalfa and Schrader. We are in the midst of yet another wildfire season, but our communities will be able to rest a little easier knowing these reforms will have a significant impact on the resiliency of our forests, the reliability of our electrical grid, and the prevention of catastrophic wildfires.

Dan Newhouse represents Central Washington state in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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