In response to wildfires in recent years, especially the Camp Fire in California, Sens. Steve Daines and Diane Feinstein introduced a bill into the Senate on Tuesday that would permit the U.S. Forest Service to carry out large harvesting and burning projects with minimal public input.
The Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020 would require the Forest Service to conduct logging and prescribed burns on three large landscape-level projects in the West. Governors would propose the projects.
To give an idea of the size of a project, the Forest Service has considered some recent projects that have been hundreds of thousands of acres.
Any areas around roads, trails or transmission lines would qualify for a 3,000-acre categorical exclusion, which means the Forest Service can do minimal environmental review, and while public input can be given it doesn’t have to be considered.
The Forest Service would have to do an environmental review only on the area in its current condition or post-fire. The agency also wouldn’t have to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on new information on the risk to threatened or endangered species, unless it was peer-reviewed.
To give the logs someplace to go, the bill creates a new Department of Energy grant program to pay for the logging and transport of the logs to biomass energy facilities. Grants would be limited to $750,000.
In California, the logs can be exported if no mills will take them.
On the other side of the wildfire risk equation, houses need protection. Scientific studies have shown that houses can survive wildfires if they have safe zones clear of vegetation and are built with fire-resistant materials. The bill would make funds available to homeowners who want to purchase fire-resistant siding and roofs.
A separate Department of Energy grant program would be available to beef up protection of energy utility facilities.
On Wednesday, Daines said he was happy to be introducing the bill with Feinstein, D-California, after working on it for more than a year.
“This bill will speed up urgently needed projects to reduce wildfire risks, create good-paying jobs in the forestry sector, and protect public health and safety. I look forward to working closely with Senator Feinstein to pass this legislation and send it to the President’s desk, because we must manage our forests so they don’t manage us,” Daines said in a statement.
The Montana Wood Products Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Northwestern Energy and Montana Logging Association are supporting the bill.
“Critical to Montana is ‘Cottonwood’-related language authorizing the Forest Service to not have to reinitiate plan-level consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following the finding of “new information”, thus allowing for the agency to conduct informal, formal, or no consultation as appropriate and allows projects to continue during plan-level consultation,” said Julia Altemus, Executive Director, Montana Wood Products Association.
“The Forest Service has been plagued by lawsuits citing a decades-old court decision that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court. It is time to fix a wrong and right-size the Forest Service again.”
But not all people think the bill is a positive thing. Six environmental groups say that some of the logging would be in backcountry locations that wouldn’t really reduce the risk to communities and that reducing the public process could open the door for some bad forest management decisions.
“This legislation is a wish list from the timber industry, and would create more controversy and legal uncertainty,” said Susan Jane Brown of the Helena-based Western Environmental Law Center. “The Feinstein-Daines bill will further undermine public trust in the credibility of the federal land management agencies, which is already at an all-time low.”
The other environmental groups include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity. They point to The Wildfire Defense Act sponsored by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as a more measured science-based approach to help communities in fire-prone areas.
Like part of the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act, its focus is to create a grant program for communities to develop “Community Wildfire Defense Plans,” much like Missoula has, to improve safety, retrofit critical infrastructure and homes, and clear defensible space buffers.
With only five months until the end of the 116th Congress, the timing of the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act limits its success. Congress goes on its August break at the end of this week. After they return to Washington, D.C., politicians will have their hands full trying to counter the economic effects of COVID-19 and trying to pass a budget before the end of the fiscal year and the election in November.
The lame-duck period before 2021 could provide an opening, depending on the outcome of the election.