Senators to discuss bipartisan take on reducing fire risks

A Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee will take testimony this week on legislation pressing a more aggressive approach to managing forests for wildfire.

The hearing comes as fires rage in California and Oregon, and politicians debate whether climate change or mismanagement are the biggest culprits.

The bill, S. 4431, by Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) caps months of work by their offices to craft a bipartisan solution to an environmentally divisive subject. They've urged a Senate vote this year, citing the spike in wildfires.

The legislation, which also has a bipartisan companion measure in the House, contains numerous provisions from members of both parties and totals 52 pages.

It doesn't seek big changes to environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act but does propose ways to speed forest-thinning projects in fire-prone areas by easing certain requirements.


It's one of 15 bills scheduled for the Wednesday hearing in the Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining, which is chaired by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) (see related story).

The ranking Democrat, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, has been active on forest and wildfire issues, including the ongoing fires in his state.

Among other provisions, the bill would remove a court-imposed requirement that the Forest Service consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service whenever "new information" emerges about potential impacts on endangered species from a proposed forest project, even after long environmental reviews have already been completed.

That requirement can slow projects aimed at reducing wildfire risk, Daines has said, citing objections from both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Other provisions would encourage the use of biomass taken from forest management work, highlighting an issue in California where dead or dying trees number in the millions due to insect infestations and drought.

And Feinstein has noted the inclusion of measures encouraging more fire-safe construction in homes — including retrofits of older structures.

Environmental groups say the bill still carries too much emphasis on timber harvesting. Hunting and fishing groups and the National Association of Counties support the measure.

In a news release announcing the hearing, the senators said, "The bipartisan bill will create good paying timber jobs, reduce frivolous litigation, protect wildlife habitats and air and water quality and reduce the risk of wildfire in at-risk communities."

It's critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, they said, because smoke from wildfires can make conditions worse for those with respiratory illness and pose threats to wildland firefighters.

President Trump is scheduled to visit California today for a briefing on wildfires raging in the state. While the president has cited forest mismanagement, Democrats point to climate change.

"It's been very clear that years of drought, as we're seeing, whether it's too much water and too much rain in parts of our country right now, or too little," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "This is climate change."

Other Democrats with the same message yesterday were Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

In a statement, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also talked "meeting and defeating the onrushing climate crisis."

Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 2:30 p.m. in 366 Dirksen and via webcast.

Witnesses: TBA.


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