The U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month approved legislation to reduce America’s wildfire risk; stop the barrage of frivolous lawsuits that have plagued forest managers for decades; and strengthen collaboration with State, local and outside stakeholders.
House members approved HR 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), by a vote of 232 to 188. Ten Democrats joined 222 Republicans in supporting strong forest policy modernization to reduce wildfire risk.
Science has proven that the active management of forests, like wildlife, improves forest health and restores habitat. Frivolous litigation and dysfunctional bureaucracy routinely have blocked the government’s efforts to reduce future fire threats.
According to U.S. Forest Service statistics, 60 to 80 million acres of federally-managed forests are at high to very high risk of catastrophic wildfire, yet the Service only treats about two percent of these at-risk acres.
This year, more than 50,000 wildfires have claimed more than 8.8 million acres on both public and private land. These fires have affected thousands of people and have racked up almost $3 billion in fire suppression costs.
In June, SCI signed a letter of support for the concept of the legislation, along with 24 other hunting and outdoor organizations. Healthy forest management will benefit wildlife and better protect forested areas where many SCI members and other sportsmen and women enjoy the great outdoors.
Improved forest management should provide more habitat for deer, elk, wild turkey and any species dependent on healthy forests—in addition to providing increased fire resistance.
This year’s fire season, with devastation to parts of California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, has sparked renewed urgency for Congress to act.
The Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, headed by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), conducted a hearing to review draft legislation to conserve mule deer and sage grouse habitat while mitigating the severity of catastrophic wildfires by streamlining onerous environmental review. That bill has yet to be filed formally in the Senate.
The House bill is more comprehensive and builds upon the reforms of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act enacted in 2003 by President George W. Bush with SCI’s support.
H.R. 2936 addresses the annual “fire borrowing” budget problem by allowing forest management agencies to use emergency management funds when fire suppression budgets have been exhausted. It also provides those agencies tools they can use immediately to treat high risk areas. The purpose is to focus forest policy on fire prevention, as a way to lessen the cost of fighting fires.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved HR 2936 in June, and the Agriculture Committee approved the bill without opposition on Oct. 4.
SCI historically has supported proper forest management in both the courts and Congress, and will continue to monitor and advocate for legislation in this Congress intended to protect forest habitat and wildlife.