Republican Bruce Westerman Proposes Curbing Western Wildfires Through Forest Management Overhaul

May 8, 2019
In The News

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., introduced legislation Wednesday to expand the pace and scale of forest management projects meant to reduce the risk of wildfires that have become more destructive and common.

The bill represents a continued push by Republicans backed by the Trump administration who argue poor forest management is contributing to the severity of wildfires in California and other parts of the western United States.

“We have made significant gains, but there is a lot of work to be done,” Westerman said ahead of the bill's official release. “I won't be at all surprised if we continue to see fires as big as what saw in California last year. We probably need a decade or more of sound forest management.”

Westerman's “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2019” aims to streamline environmental reviews so the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can more easily conduct forest-thinning projects on federal lands to help relieve wildfires. Thinning involves crews removing small trees to reduce the amount of fuel in dry forests.

The bill would also limit lawsuits by environmentalists that Westerman and other Republicans say slow forest management projects.

Westerman’s legislation creates a new arbitration pilot program requiring litigants opposing forest management activity to “provide an alternative proposal rather than just saying no.”

Westerman will introduce the bill with Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the top Republican of the Natural Resources Committee and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus.

Westerman, who is a licensed forester, authored similar legislation that passed the then GOP-controlled House in the last session of Congress. Senate Democrats opposed the bill, saying it went too far in limiting environmental reviews, preventing it from passing. But several provisions were signed into law as part of the omnibus and Farm Bill packages last year. However, those bills did not go as far as House Republicans or the Trump administration wanted.

Westerman’s new bill would expand the application of categorical exclusions to more projects, allowing for less rigorous environmental reviews for fuel-clearing projects under certain conditions.

While many Democrats acknowledge the importance of forest management, they say climate change is the biggest culprit and argue Republicans are playing politics with the issue by not appreciating the role of hotter and drier weather caused by climate change for making fire seasons longer and fires more destructive.

“Climate change is not politics — it's fact and it is dramatically increasing the wildfire threat,” said Robert Bonnie, the Department of Agriculture's undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment in the Obama administration, who oversaw the Forest Service. “To solve this challenge, we need to dramatically increase forest restoration in a way that accounts for the impacts of climate change.”

In California, most of largest wildfires in state history have occurred over the past 15 years, coinciding with some of the warmest years documented in the U.S. That includes the November 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, which killed at least 85 people.

Democrats also note the Forest Service already faces a backlog of forest management projects, as federal and state agencies have used more of their budgets responding to wildfires, rather than preventing them.

For years, the Forest Service has taken money from other preventative accounts to make up for shortfalls in firefighting funding.

Congress’s omnibus spending bill, passed in March 2018, addressed the “fire borrowing” problem by establishing an emergency account for use in bad fire years, but it doesn’t go into effect until fiscal year 2020.

“The primary barrier to increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration on federal lands is not bureaucratic inertia or red tape,” Bonnie said. “The primary challenge is the lack of staff and funding to implement those projects. Until Congress is willing to put its money where its mouth is, we will not get ahead of the problem of catastrophic fires on the National Forests.”