Senate Ag panel approves wildfire management bill

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2016 - The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved a bill aimed at helping the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) deal with its increasing expensive fire-fighting efforts and to improve forest management activities.

Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said his Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act is similar to a stand-alone measure that passed the House in July 2015. Both bills seek to address the rising cost of wildfire suppression.

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The Senate bill was approved on a party-line 11-9 vote with Democrats objecting. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the committee's ranking member, said she was pleased that the bill begins to address the problem of fire-borrowing, by which the USFS is routinely forced to transfer funds from key projects like forest restoration and timber sales to help pay for firefighting. But she said a “comprehensive solution must also tackle the dramatic reduction in the Forest Service's resources for non-fire activities.”

Just about everyone agrees that something must be done to help USFS deal with forest fires. In 2015, the agency spent more than $1.7 billion fighting fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center which says federal spending overall topped $2.1 billion. On the current course, by 2025, officials say two thirds of the Forest Service budget could be spent on firefighting, up from about one-sixth 20 years ago.

Roberts said his legislation amends the House bill to include “common sense

policies” that reduce administrative burdens to USFS and provide greater efficiencies for collaborative forest management activities. They include:

     •Promoting large-scale landscape forest management projects on National Forest System land;

      •Encouraging cross-boundary management of Federal, state, and private forested land;

      •Building off successful and bipartisan policies in the 2014 farm bill that provide the Forest Service with the necessary tools to promote collaborative and active forest management activities in response to catastrophic and emergency events; and

      •Streamlining efficiencies for environmental review, analysis, and compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.      

The bill, for example, would create “categorical exclusions” to the environmental review process for some forest management projects, aiming to get the projects done more quickly and at less cost. These provisions have drawn complaints from the White House and some Democrats who say they would undermine environmental protections.  

Roberts made it clear he was not endorsing the funding language in the bill, but said that it should be viewed as “placeholder language for future discussions” with the Budget Committee and other panels that have jurisdiction.

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The American Farm Bureau Federation applauded the Agriculture Committee's action.

"Our nation's federal forests are facing serious threats from fires, insects and disease due to a lack of active forest management,” AFBF President Zippy Duvall said in a statement. “The poor health of our federal forests also threatens wildlife populations and neighboring non-federal lands, as well as the vitality of rural, forested communities across the country. A vibrant forest products industry helps diversify rural economies in ways that compliment ranching and agricultural operations.

Duvall said the Roberts' bill “would allow the government to respond more quickly and efficiently to wildland fire emergencies.” Additionally, he said it would simplify environmental process requirements related to forest management, reduce project planning times and reduce the cost of implementing forest management projects.

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