Silly Versus Serious

With two vastly different wildfire bills in the news, I can't weight to see which one Sen. Jon Tester throws his weight behind

By Dave Skinner

With the smoke clearing out West, the political smoke on Capitol Hill is pluming up nicely, putting two vastly different wildfire bills in the news.

First out of the gate was a “bipartisan” bill sponsored by six U.S. senators representing Idaho, Washington and Oregon: the Wildland Fires Act of 2017, intended to “reduce the risk posed by wildfires to communities and the most at-risk federally-owned forests.”

As I’ve come to expect from lead sponsor Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), this bill is provincial window-dressing at its finest. First, it calls for “cost review” of fires larger than 100,000 acres. What’s to review?

Second, the bill proposes yet another half-hearted “pilot project,” offering $100 million per each of 10 years to treat 2 million total acres: $500 per acre net cost to taxpayers.

Third, the funds can only be used on ponderosa- or Jeffrey-pine forests, only in locations “for which there are fewer than 2 local entities” able to process forest products (one to zero) AND only in Fire Regime Group I, which includes fire intervals of 0 to 35 years, surface and mixed burns in open forests — supposedly a “natural” thing, if you pretend American Indians never existed.

In a pander to the no-salvage-ever radicals, funding work on any federal ground “burned by a wildfire” is forbidden. Herbicides and pesticides are prohibited. Projects are limited to 3,000 acres, and all must be supported by a “certified collaborative,” which, after some digging into the actual law, have no substantive policy power.

Shortly after, a handful of Western Republican senators led by John Barrasso of Wyoming introduced the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017. Purpose of the bill: “To discourage litigation against” the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management regarding “land management projects.” Specifically, the bill would “statutorily reverse the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s Cottonwood decisions,” a really big deal.

The Ninth Circuit Court’s jurisdiction covers 18 national forests (plus most BLM in the West). There, the Cottonwood ruling requires that, in relation to any critical habitat listing for a threatened or endangered species, “consultation” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required. In practical terms, the Cottonwood ruling opens any and all existing management plans to a complete rewrite any time an “action” might be proposed in “critical habitat.”

Therefore, Title I of the bill decrees if a management plan is already in place, then no further consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service is needed until a new plan process begins.

Title II of the bill green-lights very active management of sage country to eliminate pinyon-juniper encroachment, and allowing “herbicide, pesticide or biological control […] in accordance with applicable legal requirements.” Wilderness is exempt.

Title III covers U.S. Forest Service issues, adding quite a bit of beef to the existing Healthy Forests Act. Management projects up to 6,000 acres would be covered by Environmental Assessments (EAs) limited to, wow, 100 pages or less, with a 90-day deadline! Wow!

Permanent roads used for the projects and then closed to the public “shall remain intact” in case they are needed later … no more wasteful and stupid “road-ripping.”

The EAs for these future fuels management projects would present a preferred action and a no-action analysis. The Healthy Forests rules governing objectors and comments would still mostly apply, with the addition of a cadre of 20 arbitrators “currently certified by the American Arbitration Association” as a substitute for the usual court circus. The arbitrators would not be allowed to modify or mix and match. They would have to approve either the preferred project or a whole-cloth alternative presented by the objector, or neither. Simple.

In general, Barrasso’s bill seeks to at least double 2017’s “number of acres” treated under Healthy Forests in five years or less, and does so by affirming other worthy goals, such as allowing “salvage operation” to prevent wildfire after a “catastrophic event,” affirming a need to utilize “damaged forest materials” as a “funding source for reforestation.”

Sen. Steve Daines has signed on to Barrasso’s bill. I can’t wait to see which one Sen. Jon Tester throws his weight behind.

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