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Senate Holds Hearing on Wildfire Bill
The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining is set to hold a hearing on the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020 (S. 4431) on September 16. The bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Steve Daines (R-MT), is intended to improve wildfire mitigation efforts and forest management projects while also addressing community resilience to fires. The legislation is timely as wildfires burn in several states across the West. As of September 14, there were 87 large active fires burning on 4.6 million acres in 10 states, and a total of more than 6 million acres have burned so far in 2020.
The legislation notes in the Findings that, “Increasing the pace and scale of science-based, publicly developed forest management activities that reduce hazardous fuels, including through mechanical thinning and controlled burning, can reduce the size and scope of wildfires, as well as protect watersheds, improve fish and wildlife habitat, expand recreational opportunities, protect air quality, and increase the sequestration of carbon on National Forest System and Bureau of Land Management land.”
The bill includes a section focused on forest landscape projects that calls for three collaborative pilot projects up to 75,000 acres to demonstrate the potential of active forest management. The goal would be to reduce catastrophic fires and improve wildlife habitat using management activities such as installing fuel breaks and mechanical thinning to clear surface and ladder fuels. The selected projects must maximize the retention of old growth stands to promote stands that are resilient to wildfire and increased average temperature, seek to maintain or restore ecological integrity, and not establish new permanent roads.
The legislation also calls for a categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act for a broad list of active management techniques – such as mowing, mastication, thinning, removal of slash (and encouraging associated sale of biomass), targeted grazing, pesticide use to fight invasives and reseeding with native species, and use of controlled prescribed burning – to establish fuel breaks up to 1,000 feet wide next to existing linear features. The categorical exclusion would not include activities in wilderness or wilderness study areas, or in areas that would have substantial adverse impact on wetlands or protected species; treatment areas could not exceed 3,000 acres. Biomass use is considered in a later section of the bill that creates a $100 million grant program to help develop biomass conversion facilities. In addition, the bill authorizes the development of a competitive grant program to support workforce development of foresters and encourages wildfire-resilient building materials and fire mitigation efforts around developments.
Another provision in the legislation codifies that “New Information” in land management plans will not reinitiate consultation requirements under the Endangered Species Act unless the new information is "influential scientific information" that is peer reviewed and published. All projects that are implemented by the Forest Service undergo review and consultation at the project level where the potential impacts can be best evaluated. However, court rulings have required re-consultation at the forest plan level when there is new species or critical habitat information, a legal tactic that has been used to slow down active forest management projects.
On August 20, Daines and Feinstein wrote a letter to the leadership of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee requesting a hearing on the bill. The letter states: “Our ‘Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act’ (S. 4431) would provide federal agencies with the tools they need to reduce hazardous fuel loads, protect communities in the Wildland Urban Interface, and support forestry jobs, biomass development, and smarter energy practices. S. 4431 is the result of extensive stakeholder engagement, outreach across party lines, and months of deliberations to ensure a truly bipartisan, pragmatic approach to reduce the risk of wildfire.”