With forecasts calling for another busy wildfire season along the West Coast, members of the U.S. House are again pushing to increase the pace and scale of public forest management.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., reintroduced the Resilient Federal Forests Act earlier this month. The bill would expedite logging and thinning projects up to 30,000 acres to reduce the risk of deadly blazes — such as the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California that torched roughly 240 square miles and killed at least 88 people.
Eighteen other Republicans have also signed on as co-sponsors, including Greg Walden of Oregon, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse of Washington and Russ Fulcher of Idaho.
"Oregonians and people across the West are preparing for yet another summer of air-choking smoke from yet another devastating wildfire season," Walden, a Republican, said. "We cannot allow this to become the new normal and cannot allow the status quo of failed forest management policy to continue."
A previous version of the Resilient Federal Forests Act passed the House in 2017 but died in the Senate.
Forest restoration work is ordinarily subject to a full assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act. But agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can exempt smaller projects through "categorical exclusions" to protect public health and safety.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act expands the use of categorical exclusions for projects up to 10,000 acres, treating forests suffering from insects, disease or overstocked with hazardous wildfire fuels.
Projects up to 30,000 acres may qualify for a categorical exclusion if they are developed by a collaborative group, such as a resource advisory committee.
The Forest Service and BLM may also use categorical exclusions to expedite salvage logging up to 10,000 acres, removing dead and burned trees after a fire. Agencies would then be required to replant 75% of the affected area.
Walden pointed to several Oregon-specific provisions included in the bill, such as removing the "Eastside Screens" rule that prohibits logging old-growth trees larger than 21 inches in diameter in Eastern Oregon and mandating at least 500 million board-feet of annual timber harvest from the O&C Lands in Western Oregon.
"We should follow the science on forest policy reform to improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfire, and that's exactly what this bill does," Walden said.
Federal agencies spent a record $3.1 billion fighting wildfires in 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Last year, Congress officially put an end to the practice of "fire borrowing," in which the Forest Service and BLM were forced to pay for firefighting by dipping into other program accounts.
Instead, the government will set aside $2 billion a year beginning in 2020 to help the Forest Service and BLM fight fires, on top of the agencies' regular budgets. That means more money available to do restoration work outlined in the Resilient Federal Forests Act.
Daniel Dructor, executive vice president of the American Loggers Council, said members support the bill.
"Our national forests are one of this country's greatest assets," Dructor said in a statement. "We believe that members of Congress should be concerned about the overall health of those forests and the need to restore and improve those forests as quickly as possible by giving the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies all of the tools that they need to accomplish that task."