As wildfires become an increasing threat to communities across the western United States, members of the U.S. Congress are seeking solutions that will help protect against the devastating impacts.
Representatives from federal agencies spoke to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources’ Public Lands, Forests and Mining Subcommittee about more than half a dozen bills specifically focused on wildfires and forest health.
Among those was Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s Western Wildfire Support Act. The Democrat from Nevada has proposed what she describes as a comprehensive approach to wildfires and forest management.
She highlighted the various aspects of the bill. Cortez Masto said it instructs federal land management agencies to create plans that include pre-fire planning, wildfire response management and post fire recovery. Additionally, the legislation would provide funding for homeowners and businesses to increase defensible space around their buildings and to implement community cleanup efforts. She said the bill would also expedite the placement of wildfire detection equipment and create a grant program that will help local agencies acquire firefighting equipment. The bill also provides funding for communities that have been impacted by wildfires and creates a program to reduce the spread of invasive species.
In written testimony, Jacqueline Emanuel, associate deputy chief of the National Forest System, said her agency supports the intent of Cortez Masto’s bill and wishes to work with the senator to accomplish its goals.
The discussion also includes two bills that environmental advocacy groups such as WildEarth Guardians oppose.
The first of those is the Promoting Effective Forest Management Act, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming. One of the things this bill proposes to do is to at least double the targeted number of acres for forest thinning projects. Opponents say the bill also targets old growth forests.
The other bill is known as the FIRESHEDS Act and is sponsored by Sen. James Risch, a Republican from Idaho. When he introduced the bill in May, he issued a press release in which he described Idaho’s “once healthy and productive forests” as a tinderbox due to “misguided policies that have led to extreme fuel buildup and hampered timber economies.”
The bill proposes to establish emergency fireshed management areas. Those areas would be exempt from National Environmental Policy Act requirements.
Emanuel expressed concerns about the FIRESHEDS Act during the subcommittee meeting.
In filed testimony, Emanuel elaborated on those, including saying that the U.S. Department of Agriculture—which oversees the national forests—has concerns that the process outlined in the legislation “could substitute a specific state or governor’s interests concerning an area for the current science-based approach to fire management and fireshed designation, overriding existing land management objectives.”
Another bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, would create a pilot program to research forest stand density in an attempt to identify what a healthy density is for a forest.
“Wildfires have burned across the country since the beginning of time, since long before we even were a country,” he said. “But it wasn’t until the last century that low-severity fires have become catastrophic burns with such wide-ranging impacts, affecting not only air quality but water quality, vegetation, flora, fauna, you name it.”
He said many western ecosystems depend on periodic burns, but management practices in the past led to fires being “suppressed aggressively and often prematurely.”
Lee said the U.S. Forest Service has a maximum stand density index of 35 percent, but that may be much higher than what would have naturally occurred in western forests prior to the suppression of fires.
He said the denser forests mean plants are competing at greater levels for limited resources leaving “the entire ecosystem weak and susceptible to catastrophic fires.”
Other fire or forest health bills included in the subcommittee hearing include the Carbon Sequestration Act of 2023 that focuses on tree planting and fire reduction projects and the Small-diameter Timber and Underutilized Material Act of 2023, which is focused on removing small trees in areas with high risks of fire.