Forest Management Bills Wander Through Political Woods

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By Alan Kovski

Wildfires scorching the West may put the heat on lawmakers to revamp management of federal forests and funding of wildfire suppression.

The omnibus funding bill this year or a farm bill in 2018 may be just the must-pass vehicles to advance that legislation, sponsors say.

“We’ll just look for whatever moving vehicles are out there. A spending bill may be one—some kind of an omnibus, perhaps in December,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) told Bloomberg BNA. “Looks like they’re looking for a short-term [continuing resolution], which says there’ll be something bigger coming in December,” he said.

The bills could make a very big difference to companies that harvest timber on federal lands, to the communities dependent on the harvests for jobs and revenues, and to homeowners vulnerable to wildfires. The bills also worry conservationists fearful of excess logging.

Daines would like to shepherd a forest management bill through the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee with a mix of streamlined environmental regulations and litigation relief. He has the support of Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the committee, who told Bloomberg BNA Daines “has some very good ideas.”

Burning Motivation for Action

Wildfires have burned 6.85 million acres in the U.S. so far this year, a 50 percent increase over the same period of last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. “There are more than a million acres of land burning in the West,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said on the Senate floor Sept. 6.

“Yeah, Montanans are tired of it,” Daines said later. “It’s an environmental disaster. Economically, it’s very harmful.”

“Sometimes it takes a tragedy or crisis to drive action in Washington,” Daines said. “This fire season may be the—excuse the metaphor—the spark to get something done.”

Wildfire fighting routinely drains all available funds from the U.S. Forest Service and leads to disruptive borrowing from other programs, including programs intended to prevent fires.

To stop the borrowing, lawmakers have been looking for a better strategy to supplement funds when appropriations fall short. That effort has bogged down for several years over disagreements on which law to amend—the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, which can allow budget adjustments, or the Stafford Act for disaster relief, which could be amended to provide wildfire funding as a form of disaster relief, much as hurricane recovery is funded.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also have argued that it is unwise to increase firefighting funds without also boosting the management strategies—including forest thinning, fire breaks, and prescribed burns—that might reduce the number and severity of fires.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee is another possible avenue for advancement of a forestry bill, Daines said.

Funding Bills Offered

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has once again proposed a bill ( H.R. 2862) to use budget cap adjustments to allow more funding of wildfire suppression. The bill was introduced in June, received bipartisan support, and was referred to three committees (on budget, natural resources, and agriculture), the committee jurisdictional being another complicating factor.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) introduced a bill ( S. 1571) that would make wildfire suppression available for disaster relief funding through an amendment of the Stafford Act. His bill hitches the Stafford Act amendment to reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program.

The Trump administration has taken no position on the funding options, which may frustrate people wanting action. “We would hope the administration would support a particular approach to fire funding,” Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, told Bloomberg BNA. His group is an association of federal timber buyers.

Westerman Modifies Strategy

Forest management is the more difficult forest legislation, because it becomes a debate over how much logging to allow, whether to restrain litigation, and how many exemptions to make, if any, to the environmental analysis obligations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The House passed legislation in 2015 to establish a set of exemptions from NEPA requirements and to discourage litigation. This year, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced a modified version ( H.R. 2936) of that legislation without the provisions to dampen litigation, but he has won no votes from Democrats yet.

Westerman’s bill was approved in June by the House Natural Resources Committee on a party-line vote and awaits action by three other committees. The 2015 version of his bill was passed the House but went nowhere in the Senate.

Thune Tries for Farm Bill

“I think the big difference this time in the Senate is that the Agriculture Committee is actively working on its 2018 farm bill, Mike Anderson, a Seattle-based senior policy analyst at the Wilderness Society, told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s must pass, and it probably will include a forestry title or some [forestry] provisions in it.”

Roberts unsuccessfully tried to galvanize action with a forest management bill last year. This year, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), also on the Agriculture Committee, is giving it a try with his Forest Management Improvement Act of 2017 ( S. 1731), introduced Aug. 2.

Thune said he wanted his legislation to become part of a 2018 farm bill, but it was referred to the Environment and Public Works Committee. The referral to that committee may have surprised Thune, Anderson said.

Thune’s bill would establish categorical exclusions for projects of up to 10,000 acres for forest thinning, wildlife habitat improvement, creation of areas of new growth ("early serial habitat"), and salvage of dead or dying trees. Where environmental impact statements are needed, the alternatives studied would be limited to the proposed project and the alternative of no action.

“I think the farm bill is a really good vehicle,” Imbergamo of the timber buyers group said. He wondered how much of the forestry legislation could be carried in such a bill, however.

The 2014 farm bill (Pub. L. No. 113-79) had a forestry title including some NEPA categorical exclusions, notably for timber harvests of up to 3,000 acres in areas of declining forest health because of insects or disease. A Good Neighbor Authority program, allowing state foresters to conduct projects on federal lands, was expanded to nationwide and permanent status.

“We’re very concerned about the Westerman bill and Thune’s bill,” Anderson said. To the Wilderness Society, the NEPA exemptions are misguided, and Thune’s provision for a pilot program of binding arbitration is another effort at litigation restraint opposed by Anderson’s group.

Committee Actions Awaited

Barrasso, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, can be expected to be supportive of the Thune bill, but that does not necessarily mean movement. Behind the scenes, there has been no talk of action on such legislation, a source said Aug. 29.

Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee, led by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), can be expected to oppose NEPA exemptions. The majority could still get the bill out of committee to the Senate floor, where it could be added to a farm bill.

Barrasso introduced his own forest management bill ( S. 879) early this year. It was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, like his 2015 version of the bill.

Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have talked about forest legislation several years in a row, including this year, but have moved nothing yet.

Rounding out the circle of legislation is the Emergency Fuel Reduction Act of 2017 ( S. 1752), introduced Aug. 3 by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and referred to the Agriculture Committee.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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