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Fight over strategy intensifies as wildfire funding grows

Lawmakers want to speed up permits for clearing away fuel, but some worry that will open the door to logging

A wildfire in Southern California killed two people and injured a third last month.
A wildfire in Southern California killed two people and injured a third last month. (Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images)

As the Biden administration doles out historic levels of wildfire mitigation funding, fights are breaking out on Capitol Hill about how to spend the money.

Lawmakers from both parties are backing measures that would speed up forest management projects that cut down on wildfire fuels, like brush and small trees, which they say leads to “megafires.” But environmentalists argue that the proposals would bypass environmental analysis and community input under the guise of wildfire mitigation and potentially open the door to excessive logging.

The flurry of legislative proposals coincides with the Biden administration releasing billions of dollars in funding for forest management and wildfire mitigation projects from the bipartisan infrastructure law and the climate, health care and tax package. In the latter spending legislation alone, Congress provided $1.8 billion to the Forest Service for hazardous fuel reduction projects such as thinning and brush removal, with a focus on projects that have already undergone environmental assessment. The infrastructure law provided $5 billion for wildfire management over the next five years.

Appropriators are looking to add even more money to the pot in the fiscal 2023 budget process. The Interior-Environment Appropriations bill in the House includes $6.43 billion for wildfire management — a more than $700 million increase above last year’s levels. Democrats in the Senate pitched $4.4 billion for fire suppression in their Interior-Environment spending bill. 

10-year strategy

The funding will be key for the White House’s 10-year strategy calling for the Forest Service to treat 20 million acres of National Forest System lands for wildfire mitigation as well as 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal and private lands, at a total cost of $50 billion. The Interior Department devoted nearly $40 million in September from the infrastructure law aimed at reducing wildfire risk and rehabilitating burned areas in six Western states — a sum that adds to a promised $131 million from the Forest Service to address high-risk forests this year.

The funding is there, said Nick Smith, executive director of timber industry group Healthy Forests Healthy Communities, which says it advocates for “sustainable” forests. How the administration spends it matters, he said.

Smith is an advocate of a bill from Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member John Barrasso, R-Wyo., that aims to address issues like the lengthy forest project permitting process, which they argue takes too long, leaving wildfire fuel in forests and contributing to hotter, more intense fires.

According to a 2022 Property and Environment Research Center report, projects like thinning that require an environmental review, the most rigorous assessment, take an average of over five years from initiation to implementation. For prescribed burn projects, it takes more than seven years on average. The process can be dragged out even longer if there’s litigation involved, which there usually is, Smith added.

At that rate, the report predicts it’s unlikely the Biden administration can reach forest management goals set out in its 10-year strategy.

“The Forest Service wants to do its job to mitigate wildfire and mitigate climate change,” Smith said. “But our system is broken.”

The answer is not eliminating these processes, Smith said, but adding to the Forest Service’s workforce and speeding up environmental assessments for thinning. Barrasso’s bill is a good start, he said, and it adds to other congressional proposals, such as a bill sponsored by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., which also aims to speed up forest projects. 

“Decades of fire suppression and reduced harvesting has led to historic buildup of vegetation or fuel load, which makes our forests unable to withstand the warming temperatures and direct conditions and drier conditions,” Manchin said during a Sept. 29 hearing. “We’ve essentially created a perfect storm, and as a result, we have witnessed an increase in the occurrence of the megafires and communities across the West are suffering from tragic loss of life and property.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., introduced another bipartisan bill earlier this year that also aims to speed up bureaucratic processes for forest management in California’s iconic sequoia forests, which were threatened by the Washburn fire in July. 

Worrisome exclusions

At the same time, Blaine Miller-McFeeley, senior legislative representative at environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, said Barrasso’s bill and other similar spinoffs are “highly concerning.” One provision in the bill would direct the Forest Service to set a thinning target on public lands based on acres — a mandate that he said “makes no sense.”

He added that another portion of the bill would create categorical exclusions for projects that the Forest Service can use to “bypass scientific review and community input,” which he said can put forest diversity at risk.

“If you want to speed up the permitting process, fund the permitting offices at these agencies,” Miller-McFeeley said.

He added that legislation should focus on forest management solutions like targeting small trees and brush closest to communities and boosting funds for fireproofing homes. 

“But that’s not the route that this bill or many of them are going because, unfortunately, the logging industry has convinced people that the more trees you cut down, the safer our forests and our communities,” he said, “which is absolutely false.”

Manchin and Barrasso’s bills have garnered some bipartisan support, including from Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who called forestry the “definition of sustainable industry” during last week’s hearing. But it’s not clear if the legislation can win enough support from the left, especially as many tend to support environmental justice initiatives with strong community involvement.

But Smith and Miller-McFeeley agree the Forest Service has a capacity issue. The two camps just need to work together to solve it.

“There’s a problem — we agree with that,” Miller-McFeeley said. “We just need to address it in a way that doesn’t only focus on the logging industry.”

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