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House, Senate Republicans: Wildfire-Funding Fix Needs to Expedite Forest-Thinning Projects

Key House and Senate lawmakers argued Friday that it’s not enough to change how the U.S. Forest Service pays for the rising costs of wildfire, saying Congress needs to pass legislation that expedites preventative forest-management projects.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) touted their chambers’ bills that would allow some forest-thinning projects to bypass lengthy environmental reviews, in a conference call with reporters on Friday.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said there needs to be a solution to the Forest Service’s financial Catch-22 on wildfires, in which the agency’s fire suppression expenses consistently go over budget, forcing the agency to pull money from other parts of the budget, which in some cases could have been used to mitigate wildfire damage. But Bishop, Roberts and Westerman said the real solution would be to expedite the agency’s ability to approve forest-thinning plans, rather than focusing solely on how the Forest Service pays for fire suppression.

“We cannot afford just to throw money at the problem,” Bishop said. “We have to address the root cause.”

Bishop and Roberts both said they were willing to include the legislation in any vehicle possible. Bishop said the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate energy bills is one possibility. Another is including it in a year-end spending deal, he said. Or lawmakers could try to pass a stand-alone bill, considering there’s bipartisan interest in the Forest Service’s uphill battle in mitigating wildfire damage.

The House bill, sponsored by Westerman, passed in July 2015 with support from 243 Republicans and 19 Democrats. The White House released a statement of administration policy criticizing some provisions, saying the fast-tracked forest management projects would undermine “public trust in forest management projects and by limiting public participation in decision-making.” The statement did not say the president would veto the bill if passed, though. Roberts introduced the similar Senate bill in June.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has released draft legislation that would address the financial issues around growing wildfire costs, but it is not as detailed about the environmental review process.

When asked how he could marry his bill with the one led by Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Roberts responded, “Well, we haven’t gotten married yet. But we have talked to her every day about a lot of different matters.”

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized a provision in Murkowski’s bill.