A coalition of western congressmen including Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) this week applauded a $576 million boost in the federal wildfire budget.
The group also continues to push for a sweeping waiver of environmental laws to speed up logging projects, a move decried by many environmental groups.
The National Interagency Fire Center reports that so far in 2017 some 50,000 wildfires have burned 8.4 million acres. The federal government has spent $2.5 billion on firefighting already this year — a new record. The agency has exhausted its firefighting budget and must now pull money out of other accounts — including the money it had budgeted to thin forests to reduce fire danger.
“Because of the unprecedented wildfire season this year, USFS once again was forced to raid its accounts in order to supplement its fire suppression operations. The root cause of this crisis is unacceptable, but swift intervention to right the ship was needed,” said Gosar in a prepared statement.
The Trump administration responded to a plea for emergency firefighting help signed by 31 western congressmen including Gosar by proposing a $576 million increase in the firefighting budget for the current year.
The request accompanied a $12 billion supplemental request to provide relief for areas hit by hurricanes.
The Forest Service has had to move money out of its operations budget eight times in the past 12 years to cover firefighting costs, a practice called “fire borrowing.”
“This flawed approach causes us to spend billions of dollars on the backend to suppress fire, neglecting fire prevention and putting our communities at increasing risk of catastrophic fire,” said Gosar.
Last year, wildfires consumed 4,312 structures including 3,200 homes. The western U.S. has been staggered by a dramatic increase in the size and ferocity of forest fires in the past decade. Experts blame a historic drought, rising average temperatures and the effect of a century of management that has dramatically increased tree densities on millions of acres.
Rising temperatures due to heat trapped by pollutants may play a role in the huge increase in acres burned in recent years. However, the fires also add to the problem.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce recently reported that in 2005 alone, wildfires released 126 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
However, the effort by the Congressional Western Caucus Rep. Gosar heads goes well beyond an effort to rationalize the Forest Service budget.
The Natural Resources Committee has passed HR 2936, dubbed the Resilient Federal Forests Act. The bill would waive many environmental reviews for a wide range of forest thinning and logging projects — including a possible return of clear cuts. The bill would also make it much harder for environmental groups to go to court to challenge a timber sale in court. It would also prevent judges from awarding challengers legal fees when a judge rules against the agency’s position on a timber sale.
Rep. Gosar said the wildfires do far more damage to the environment than the logging projects, including salvage logging after the fire. He noted that the timber harvest on public lands went from 10 billion board feet in 1990 to 2.5 billion in 2016. He largely blamed environmental regulations and environmental groups for the collapse of the logging industry.
“Now Congress must show real leadership and put HR 2936 on President Trump’s desk — bipartisan legislation that adopts forward-thinking active management strategies as well as allocation reforms that will cease the practice of fire borrowing.”
The proposed rollback of environmental regulations has spurred mixed reactions — but mostly intense opposition by environmental groups. Those groups argue that tree densities soared as a result of the removal of most of the big, trees, a century of fire suppression, logging and grazing
The bill would waive provisions of the Endangered Species and National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) for an array of logging and thinning projects if managers decided the projects would protect forested communities, reduce fire danger, improve forest health, help endangered species.
The bill would also impose tight time limits on reviews of proposals by other agencies.
The bill would allow less rigorous reviews to consider only the difference between the timber sale and no action at all — rather than considering various alternatives.
Current law allows for more limited waivers of environmental review for more strictly defined fire safety and forest health projects up to 10,000 acres. The proposal would greatly expand the exemptions and raise the limit to 30,000 acres in many cases.
The approach in the bill contrasts with the approach taken in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, with the goal of t restoring forest health and natural fire patterns to millions of acres on Northern Arizona.
In that case, environmental groups, the timber industry, local officials and the Forest Service agreed on the need to dramatically reduce tree densities by logging the thickets of small trees. The Forest Service completed a historic environmental analysis on 100,000 acres going by existing environmental laws and is now working on a second, 300,000-acre analysis.
A letter to the House Natural Resource Committee signed by 40 environmental groups with millions of members said the bill would “severely undermine” the public’s right to input. The groups called the bill an “overwhelming assault on public lands and environmental laws.”
The letter supported budget reforms to eliminate “fire borrowing,” but opposed many other provisions of the bill.
“The only legislative reform needed is a budgetary one as the most critical issue facing the Forest Service is overall declining budgets combined with ‘fire borrowing’ to address emergency wildfire suppression costs, which has diverted funding away from other vital program areas,” concluded the paper by the environmental groups, which included the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, League of Conservation Voters, Earthjustice, American Rivers, Friends of the Earth, American Bird Conservancy and a host of local environmental groups.
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