A new bill in the U.S. Senate follows a fierce Western wildfire season that has put more pressure on politicians to curb partisan battles over how fire-prone public lands should be managed.
The four Democratic senators from Oregon and Washington have found common ground with Idaho’s two Republican senators in a bill to reduce wildfire risks near communities.
The legislation directs federal land managers to focus tree-thinning and brush-removal projects in areas where wildfire would pose the most risk to people, homes and businesses. It also allocates $100 million to help local governments and tribes in high-hazard areas prepare for fires.
The six sponsors include Washington’s Sen. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that will consider the bill.
The legislation lands in the Senate at the tail end of a fierce Western wildfire season, which has put more pressure on Congress to curb some of the partisan battles over management of fire-prone public lands.
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Republicans have sought to ramp up logging, with some bills proposing to ease environmental reviews, while many Democrats have opposed such measures. That political divide also has so far stymied efforts to reform the system for funding federal wildfire fighting, which now borrows money from fire-prevention and other accounts to cover costs that this year have exceeded $2.8 billion.
The legislation introduced by the Northwest senators last week reflects a new push to find common ground. It focuses on some of the least controversial things that both Republicans and Democrats think need to get done — thinning and burning in areas close by communities. When these projects are approved by community collaborative groups, then the legislation — in a bow to Republicans — allows environmental rules to be eased.
Cantwell said the legislation resulted from Republicans and Democrats talking with university researchers and communities. Her staff said it also was spurred by the findings of a 2016 Forest Service Office of Inspector General report. Investigators found the agency often fails to select the highest-priority areas for fuel-reduction projects.
The federally funded work includes chain-saw logging of small trees, and cool-season prescribed burns of undergrowth. If wildfire moves through this treated landscape, the hope is that it will burn with less intensity and be more easily controlled. There are no guarantees that will happen, particularly during periods of extreme fire weather — with high temperatures and strong winds.
And some types of forest tend naturally to burn less frequently but with high intensity in a natural cycle that can span decades or centuries.
Cantwell’s staff said that some of the strongest science backs thinning ponderosa- pine forests that — through decades of fire suppression — have become far more dense and crowded. These forests are found throughout large expanses of the more arid parts of the Pacific Northwest, and the legislation focuses efforts in these forests.
The legislation also authorizes the Forest Service to extend long-term contracts of up to 20 years to remove timber. This is intended to assure mills that there would be a steady supply of wood should they operate in these areas.
So far, the bill has drawn endorsements from some environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, as well as the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group.
In Washington state, there also is a new push to step up efforts to reduce fire risks on state lands.
On Wednesday, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz will be in Cle Elum to release a 20-year plan to reduce runaway fire risks and improve the health of 1.25 million acres of Washington forest. That plan — like the federal legislation — also calls for collaborative efforts to increase forest thinning and prescribed fire.
State funding of such efforts depends on the Legislature, and a budget request is not part of the plan that will be released Wednesday.