Wildfire management last hurdle to farm bill agreement

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A debate over how to manage the nation’s forests against wildfire appears to be the last obstacle to passing a 2018 farm bill, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said Monday.

Fresh off devastating wildfires in California, the Trump administration and House Republicans are pushing hard for policy changes that could lead to bigger forest-thinning projects — but which haven’t gained traction with Democrats or environmental groups.

Roberts (R-Kan.) told reporters the forestry provisions are being hammered out by top congressional leaders of both parties, with participation by the White House, as Congress tries to complete negotiations on the five-year farm bill in time to add it to a year-ending spending bill preventing a Dec. 7 government shutdown.

“I was informed by the Leader’s people that they’ll have an answer by tomorrow morning,” Roberts told reporters.

At issue is how far federal policymakers should go in allowing clearing of potential fuel for wildfires on public lands, especially near populated areas.

For example, the House version of the farm bill, H.R. 2, calls for expanded categorical exclusions from the National Environmental Policy Act, to 6,000 acres, where officials believe a project would reduce wildfire risk by removing insect-infested or diseased trees.

The Senate version doesn’t call for the larger categorical exclusions.

“The biggest question is this whole question on forestry and whether it actually helps stop fires. That’s the big difference between the two [sides],” said Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

Adding to the debate, Congress has already expanded some of the Forest Service’s authority — and provided additional funding — through an omnibus appropriations bill enacted last March. The agency has only begun tapping that authority.

“In the wildfire bill, we passed nine policy changes that would help with that, and they haven’t even been used yet. So that’s the big debate,” Stabenow told reporters.

Roberts said other aspects of the farm bill, which covers commodity programs, crop insurance, conservation and low-income nutrition assistance, have been worked out. The 2014 farm bill expired Oct. 1, putting extra pressure on Congress to renew it.

A deal on forestry, Roberts said, “would indicate that the light went from yellow to green here pretty fast.”

He said he wasn’t sure whether the result of the high-level meetings would be forest provisions closer to the House bill but that wildfire risk is the thrust of the discussion.

The forest management debate has been brewing for months but gained sudden steam after the most recent fires in California, blamed for more than 80 deaths and the destruction of thousands of homes in Paradise, Calif., and other areas.

President Trump has weighed in on the debate, saying forests are being neglected, leading to fuels buildup, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as well as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue are visiting the state today and have made similar proclamations.

Critics of the more-aggressive forest thinning say it doesn’t reduce wildfire risks. The region around Paradise has already been a target of hazardous fuel reduction projects, including salvage operations after a Butte County fire in 2008.

The Forest Service began a hazardous fuels reduction project on about 1,500 acres to the east of Paradise in 2011, according to an environmental impact statement prepared by the agency.

The most recent fire went through areas that had already seen post-fire salvage logging in prior years, said Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist with the John Muir Project in Big Bear City, Calif., who opposes logging on federal lands. Hanson said his research suggests salvage logging can increase wildfire risk, while damaging wildlife habitat.