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Critics see GOP wildfire bill as attack on environmental protections


Forests and grasslands are smoldering across vast areas of Oregon and Washington, scorching homes and habitat in what may turn out to be a particularly gnarly fire season. Although nationally the season has been quieter than usual, intense fires have been burning in the Pacific Northwest and parts of California, and the West Coast is predicted to have above-normal risk through September. And as the West grows hotter, a debate about how to fight the flames is emerging.

Much of the controversy surrounds a recent series of congressional bills aimed at increasing logging activity to help lessen the risk of forests igniting. The latest bill, sponsored by a group of Republican senators, proposes expediting certain wildfire prevention projects by reducing the bureaucracy associated with so-called “hazardous fuel projects,” which thin out overgrown – and fire-prone forests.

A new bill proposes reducing environmental regulations for wildfire prevention projects. Photo by National Park Service.

On its face, the bill appears helpful for fire mitigation: make it easier for companies who want to remove the forest material that’s kindling wildfires and threatening people and animals. But watchdogs say it has the potential to undermine the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law that requires thorough impact assessments ahead of government decisions on public lands. The bill, introduced by Senator Dean Heller, R-Nev., a strong defender of private property rights and greater public land access, is very unlikely to make it through this session of Congress, but analysts say it does mark a continued GOP attack on environmental legislation.

As written, the bill would amend an existing law designed to help clear out forests clogged with flammable underbrush called The Healthy Forests Restoration Act. That law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2003, diminished the paperwork associated with the environmental reviews that federal agencies are required to perform under NEPA.

Heller’s proposal would further loosen environmental procedures for hazardous fuel projects, allowing them to avoid review altogether if they meet certain criteria, such as the removal of trees within 500 feet of infrastructure including schools, campgrounds, and water supplies; as well as trees infected by mountain pine beetles.

But there’s a catch, says Ani Kame'enui, a forest representative for the Sierra Club: under the guise of species protection, the bill is undermining a bedrock environmental law to achieve its aims of ramping up commercial logging on public lands. In other words, the bill claims cutting down more trees in forests where fires pose a big threat will help protect the habitat of at-risk species, like the sage grouse.

“It’s using NEPA as a bargaining chip,” she says, adding that many lawmakers see the fire season as prime time to push for increased timber cuts.

Heller’s bill is the latest in a series of Republican bills seeking to reduce administrative and legal delays from environmental laws. Last year, another GOP-sponsored bill, “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities,” would have mandated or incentivized more logging activity across large areas of public land as a way of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The bill passed both the House and the Senate, but the White House issued a veto threat, claiming it would conflict with environmental laws and harm federal forests and range lands. On top of that, there was Wyoming senator John Barrasso's “National Forest Jobs and Management Act,” which would have weakened requirements of NEPA to “get the cut up” – by which he meant doubling the amount of commercial logging on forest service land.

Barrasso, a co-sponsor of the current bill, claimed that the high cost of compliance with NEPA was “draining Forest Service budgets” and “preventing dollars from being spent on actually improving forests.”

There is no doubt the Forest Service is strapped for cash. After last year’s sequester cuts went into effect, the wildfire fighting budget was slashed by $115 million. Meanwhile the length of fire seasons has increased by two and a half months since the 1970s, and the cost of fighting them has jumped from $239 million in 1985, to well over $1 billion in 2013. That means the agency has had to do a lot more with a lot less. In the past 10 years, the Forest Service has run out of money for wildland firefighting nine times and been forced to borrow the remainder from other programs within the agency, even from some intended to reduce fire danger.

The fire-funding shortfalls and the attempts to weaken environmental standards through new forest management bills are all interrelated, says Kame’enui, noting that the repeated cycle of “robbing Peter to pay for Paul” has strained budgets for other important environment-related programs like trail maintenance and clean-ups.

Instead of undercutting environmental laws, Kame’enui says the answer is to address the funding issue through efforts like the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would classify extreme wildfires as natural disasters so that federal emergency dollars could kick in to help cover the costs.

“We already have enough laws to protect species and people’s homes,” she says. “But we don’t have resources needed to actually fight the fires.”

Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @tory_sarah. Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that this fire season may shape up to be one of the worst on record. It has been clarified to reflect that nationally this fire season has been quieter than usual, but that there is intense burning in some Western regions and several states are predicted to have above-normal fire potential in the coming month.