When thousands of homes go up in flames, it gets America’s attention.
This year, over 8,000 homes and structures burned in northern California alone. While the causes of all the fires have yet to be determined, it appears that power lines and utility equipment may bear much of the blame. So, of course, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would increase logging in pristine roadless areas.
Makes sense, right?
Introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) and cosponsored by Rep. RaÃºl Labrador (R-ID) and others, the House’s so-called Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 would swing an axe at bedrock environmental laws-including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA) and National Forest Management Act-to expedite logging projects in our public forests.
But wait…there’s more.
The bill would also undermine constitutional protections by giving complete power of the rule of law to the administrative branch, thereby circumventing judicial review and undermining fundamental citizen rights to seek redress in the courts.
In a misguided effort that threatens to return us to the timber wars, the bill would blind the U.S. Forest Service and gag the public. The House passed the Westerman bill along a largely party-line vote with both Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Labrador in support.
So What Now?
The Westerman bill heads to the Senate, but the path to the president’s desk is far from clear. Similar one-sided legislation has passed the House in years past, only to be stymied (thankfully) in the Senate where rules require 60 votes to end debate.
One of the Senate’s major forest priorities is a permanent fix to the Forest Service wildfire budget. Currently, when fire suppression accounts are depleted, the Forest Service is forced to dip into other accounts (road and trail maintenance, recreation services, watershed restoration and even fuels reduction) to cover wildfire costs.
Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo (both of Idaho), along with Rep. Simpson and more than 100 other members of Congress, have cosponsored a bill to ensure that the Forest Service doesn’t need to raid these other accounts every time we have a bad fire year… which seems like every year nowadays. Their approach makes sense.
The Westerman bill, on the other hand, includes a “non-fix” that would continue to limit the funds available for fire suppression, requiring a presidential disaster declaration for each lightning strike and forcing the Forest Service to violate federal law if the agency dipped into other accounts.
Other bills have been proposed in the Senate:
- Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) introduced a discussion draft of a bill with some similarities to the Westerman bill. It would limit NEPA and public involvement, undermine judicial access and mandate acreage targets (without a corresponding increase in funding).
- Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) also introduced a bipartisan bill that would accelerate thinning and prescribed burning in dry ponderosa pine forests and incentivize wildfire suppression cost savings. Sen. Cantwell was joined by the other five senators from the Pacific Northwest, including Sens. Risch and Crapo. Her bill is a step in the right direction, and we are encouraged to see Sens. Crapo and Risch reaching across the aisle to explore solutions.
- Other bills were proposed earlier in the session by Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and Dean Heller (R-NV) that included elements of the Westerman bill, seeking to expedite logging projects in the name of reducing wildfire risks. Neither bill had a hearing though, and it’s unclear whether they are still in play.
What Really Needs to Happen?
Instead of using the fires of 2017 as an excuse to weaken environmental laws and cut the public out of our national forests, the Senate should prioritize funding for fuels-reduction efforts around communities, boost funding for roads and trails, expand the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and fix the wildfire budget. Otherwise, just like the House, the Senate will “miss the forest for the trees.”
What’s more, Congress appears to be pushing forward with forest and wildfire reforms as though climate change weren’t a significant culprit. As esteemed University of Idaho researchers and others have demonstrated, the marked increase in acreage burned by western wildfires is indisputably tied to climate change. Unless we address the root causes of climate change, we will continue to deal with the reality of smoky skies and charred landscapes.
What Will Happen?
As we approach the end of the congressional session, what’s most likely to happen is some last-minute negotiations to identify a package of reforms. The question is how many of the unsavory elements of the Westerman bill will survive in the Senate and will those be enough to pacify the House?
Idaho’s Sens. Risch and Crapo will play key roles in these discussions. They should oppose the Westerman bill, support a wildfire funding fix and ensure that any new legislation enhances collaborative efforts already underway across Idaho and the West.
What Can You Do?
Let Sens. Crapo and Risch know that we need to fix the wildfire budget, boost collaborative efforts to restore our forests and keep our environmental laws in place!