GOP Bill Aims to Reduce Environmental Constraints on Logging to Reduce Wildfire Risk

By MATTHEW DALY | November 3, 2017

House Republicans are targeting environmental rules to allow faster approval for logging and other actions in national forests in response to deadly wildfires in the West.

Lawmakers are set to approve a bill to loosen environmental regulations for forest-thinning projects on federal lands.

“Now more than ever, there is a needed urgency to protect our nation’s federal forests from the kind of devastation that California experienced,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said before a vote expected Wednesday. The GOP bill “will help us stop forest fires before they occur,” he said.

Republicans and the timber industry have long complained about environmental rules that block or delay plans to cut down trees to reduce fire risk. Democrats and environmentalists say GOP policies would bypass important environmental laws to clear-cut vast swaths of national forests, harming wildlife and the environment.

The GOP bill is one of at least three being considered in Congress to address wildfires and solve a longstanding “fire borrowing” problem that forces officials to take funds from fire prevention programs to put out increasingly dangerous wildfires.

The legislation comes as the Forest Service has spent a record $2.4 billion battling forest fires in one of the nation’s worst fire seasons. Wildfires have burned nearly 9 million acres across the country, with much of the devastation in California, Oregon and Montana.

The House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said the recent wildfires show “how years of unmanaged federal forests have wreaked havoc on our environment, polluting our air and water and destroying thousands of acres of wildlife habitat.”

He and other Republicans say proactive management of forests – including prescribed burns, salvage logging of dead trees and projects to cut small trees and underbrush – reduces the risk of wildfires and lessens the severity of fires that occur.

Democrats say they support responsible projects to prevent fires, but accuse Republicans of using the current fires as an excuse to undermine the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and other laws.

Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said the GOP bill would “elevate logging over all other uses, increasing logging companies’ access to public lands but doing little to prevent forest fires.”

House Republicans “know the bill has no future in the Senate and are pushing it anyway as a purely ideological exercise,” Grijalva said.

Despite the acrimony, lawmakers from both parties are pushing to rework a federal funding formula that makes it hard for officials to budget for extreme wildfire seasons. The formula ties spending to a 10-year average for wildfires even as fires burn longer and hotter each year and forces officials to tap money meant for prevention to fight fires.

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