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Forest Fires Add Snag to Getting Farm Bill Passed

House-passed version would change forest management policies that opponents say would ease oversight

A Cal Fire firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through earlier this month in Magalia, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images file photo)
A Cal Fire firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through earlier this month in Magalia, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images file photo)

Forestry provisions have emerged as the latest snag in farm bill negotiations, sending the issue to congressional leaders for talks to break the impasse.

The forestry provisions in the House-passed version of the farm bill say the proposed changes to federal forest management policies would prevent forest fires — an issue that is now at the forefront after the deadly California fires. Opponents say the proposed changes would ease federal oversight and safeguards needed to limit logging on public lands that could destroy forests habitats and reduce protections for endangered wildlife.

“The big, big question right now is this debate on forestry,” Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan told reporters Monday night. “Last-minute provisions can be the death of any complicated bill. … If it were not for that, we’d be close to wrapping this thing up.” House and Senate lawmakers are racing to craft a compromise 2018 farm bill by December. The 2014 farm bill expired on Sept. 30.

Stabenow said she, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, and House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway of Texas, and ranking member Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota have a handful of other issues to finish up including federal payment limits of farm subsidies.

Stabenow said the forestry issue is the only one to be sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for action. The four are expected to discuss the issue Tuesday.

The House farm bill would streamline the federal review process for certain forest projects through categorical exclusions for thousands of acres designated by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and USDA’s Forest Service for removal of dead or diseased trees that can serve as kindling in forest fires. In a Nov. 20 conference call, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said those farm bill forestry provisions would give them tools to reduce wildfire threats and destruction.

“Active (forest) management doesn’t necessarily mean clear-cutting or large-scale logging, as some environmentalists would have you believe,” Zinke wrote Monday in an opinion piece for CNN.

Stabenow and Senate Agriculture Committee member Patrick J. Leahy, D- Vt., say Congress already has approved changes in legislation this year that both departments can use to reduce wildfire risks. The departments should use those new authorities, Stabenow and Leahy argue.

Environmental and conservation groups say the proposed provisions also would exempt some forest projects from environmental analysis and public comment and ease oversight of the Endangered Species Act.

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