Does the Dept. of the Interior Need More Flexibility to Manage Wildfire Threats? (H.R. 2647)
Do you support or oppose this bill?
What is H.R. 2647?
(Updated October 21, 2019)
In hopes of reducing the threat of wildfires, this bill would change the way federal forests are managed, and aims to improve the overall health and biodiversity of the forests.
This bill hopes to streamline the process for maintaining forests before catastrophic fires, and restoring them afterwards. For example, the bill doesn't create any new mapping, planning, rule-making, or reporting requirements for forest management agencies.
To speed things up, categorical exclusions (exemptions from environmental impact statements or assessments) would be available to the Forest Service for activities that:
Reduce the amount of hazardous fuel (like dry brush) available for fires;
Protect a municipal water source;
Address insect or disease infestations;
Protect critical habitat from natural catastrophes;
Increase the water yield.
Categorical exclusions would be limited to 5,000 acres. However, they could cover up to 15,000 acres if developed collaboratively, proposed by a resource advisory committee, or are covered by a community wildfire protection plan.
After a catastrophic event, the Forest Service would be able to quickly remove dead trees. This, in turn, would pay for reforestation and rehabilitation, which includes the planting of trees, surveying natural regeneration, clearing vegetation around seedling, and other activities.
This legislation allows states that wish to establish “revolving funds” accounts to manage their national forests to do so, as states like Montana, New Mexico, and Oregon had experienced difficulty doing so previously.
To bolster cooperation between various groups, environmental groups, timber companies, local stakeholders, and wildlife groups — among others — would participate in the planning and implementation of collaborative projects.
Existing environmental reviews would be maintained, though their requirements for project planning times and the costs of implementing forest management projects would be reduced.
Legal challenges against collaborative forest management projects would require a bond in order to proceed, which prevents frivolous challenges from indefinitely delaying projects and increasing costs.
When deciding on collaborative forest management activities, the Secretary of the Interior (DOI) could only consider two alternatives — the proposed activity or doing nothing. When assessing the option of doing nothing, considerations would include forest health, habitat diversity, the potential for wildfire, insect and disease infestation, and impacts on community water systems.
Argument in favor
Wildfires are a major economic and environmental threat to national forests. Giving forest management agencies more flexibility while getting help from community partners and businesses can only improve the status quo.
Trying to protect national forests from wildfires is a worthwhile goal, but it requires additional funding — which this bill doesn’t provide. It also makes it harder to bring a legal challenge delaying forest management projects from going forward.
Residents of areas affected by wildfires and visitors to the area, groups participating in forest management projects, the Dept. of the Interior, and the Secretary of the Interior.
Cost of H.R. 2647
The CBO estimates that this bill would cost $10 million over the 2016-2020 period — or about $2 million per year.
In-Depth: Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) — the sponsor of this legislation — called his legislation “simple” and added
“It protects our national forests through proper management practices. It creates healthier forests, cleaner water, cleaner air, and protects the lives and property of Americans living in or near our national forests.”
The Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) said this legislation would “expedite forest management activities in the National Forest System and Bureau of Land Management to promote healthy, resilient forests and prevent wildfires.”
Expressing opposition to this bill, the Wilderness Society blasted “short cuts that would rush the environmental review and short change the public comment process.” It also strongly condemned the creation of exemptions for logging and road building in certain parts of national forests.
This bill was approved by the House Agriculture Committee via voice vote, and by the House Natural Resources Committee in a 22 to 15 vote.
Of Note: In recent years, wildfires have been significant if uneven in the amount of acreage burned. The 2014 wildfire season saw 3.6 million acres burn, the smallest total since 2010, but the 2012 wildfire season saw 9.3 million acres burn — the third highest total since 1960. About $3.4 billion has been allocated for wildfire management in fiscal year 2015.
Approximately one-quarter of the 193 million acre National Forest System is considered to be at risk of wildfires.
- Sponsoring Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) Press Release
- House Agriculture Committee Press Release
- House Agriculture Committee Summary
- CBO Cost Estimate
- Montana Public Radio
- National Association of State Foresters (In Favor)
- The Wilderness Society (Opposed)
- Congressional Research Service (Context)
(Photo Credit: Flickr user Cococino National Forest
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