Congress again takes up federal timber reform

2017-06-30 Ashley Bach

We last wrote about the prospect of federal timber reform in December of last year, when Congress was focused on ending the practice of "fire borrowing," which is when the U.S. Forest Service raids its own budget to fight massive wildfires. 

Just this month, the Vancouver Columbian editorialized in favor of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, a bill that would focus primarily on ending fire borrowing. The bill has been under consideration for a couple years now and was just reintroduced in Congress this month.

The Columbian:

In 2014, Washington experienced the most devastating wildfire season in its history — a record that lasted exactly one year. In 2015, more than 1 million acres in the state burned, more than 300 homes were destroyed, and three firefighters were killed. A total of $347 million in federal, state, and local money was spent fighting those blazes.

Such expenses call for dedicated funding rather than a system that moves money around and leads to greater costs down the road. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would be a wise step toward acknowledging an immutable fact of governance: We can pay for it now, or pay more for it later.

However, the political winds have shifted this year. The Republicans now control both houses of Congress, along with a Republican president. That may explain why the federal timber reform bill that currently has momentum is the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, which was passed this week by the House Committee on Natural Resources. The bill would also get rid of fire borrowing but goes one step further and increases active management of our federal forests.

The House Natural Resources Committee passed the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, moving to combat the rise in catastrophic wildfires by reversing what sponsors described as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s “anemic forest management efforts.”

“As we debated this bill, dozens of wildfires continue to burn in the Southwest,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman, Arkansas Republican and the bill’s sponsor.

The Brian Head fire in southern Utah, the largest of 21 major wildfires currently burning in the West, has razed 21 buildings, 13 of them homes, across 50,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 1,500 residents.

“Our forest health crisis can no longer be neglected,” said chairman Rob Bishop, Utah Republican. “Active management is needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improve the health and resiliency of our forests and grasslands. More money alone is not the solution.”

Here's how the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, describes the bill:

H.R. 2936 addresses the growing economic and environmental threats of catastrophic wildfire and solves the problem of “fire-borrowing.” The bill streamlines onerous environmental review processes to get work done on the ground quickly, without sacrificing environmental protection. The bill also minimizes the threat of frivolous litigation by providing alternatives to resolve legal challenges against forest management activities.

According to McClatchy News, an earlier version of Westerman's bill passed the House in 2015, on a 262-167 vote, with only 19 Democrats voting yes. It was not considered in the Senate. But with Republicans this year controlling the Senate and White House, the bill could find a different reception.