By Matthew Daly / Associated Press
WASHINGTON — House Republicans are targeting environmental rules to allow faster approval for tree cutting in national forests in response to the deadly wildfires in California.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Thursday that lawmakers will vote next week on a bill to loosen environmental regulations for forest-thinning projects on federal lands. The GOP argues the actions will reduce the risk of fire.
The Republican bill makes needed changes to forest management and “includes reforms to keep our forests healthy and less susceptible to the types of fires that ravaged our state this month,” McCarthy said.
California has declared a public health emergency in the northern part of the state, where fires that began Oct. 8 have killed at least 42 people, making them the deadliest series of wildfires in state history. Authorities have warned residents returning to the ruins of their homes to beware of possible hazardous residues in the ashes, and required them to sign forms acknowledging the danger.
The GOP bill is one of at least three being considered in Congress to address wildfires. Republicans and the timber industry have long complained about environmental rules that make it harder to cut down trees to reduce fire risk.
Democrats and environmental groups decry GOP policies they say would clear-cut vast swaths of national forests, harming wildlife and the environment.
“We must ask ourselves: What kind of future are we leaving for the next generation when we have failed to conserve federal forests that overwhelm the sky with thick smoke and ash when they burn?” asked Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chief sponsor of the Senate GOP bill and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., sponsor of the House bill, said fires devastating communities across California, Montana and other western states show “how years of unmanaged federal forests have wreaked havoc on our environment, polluting our air and water and destroying thousands of acres of wildlife habitat,” Westerman said.
The flurry of legislation comes as the Forest Service has spent a record $2.4 billion battling forest fires in one of the nation’s worst fire seasons. Wildfires have burned nearly 9 million acres across the country, with much of the devastation in California, Oregon and Montana.
As of Thursday, six large fires were still burning in the West, including four in California.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has directed federal land managers and park superintendents to be more aggressive in cutting down small trees and underbrush to prevent wildfires to save lives, homes and wildlife habitat.
The other measures in Congress include a bipartisan Senate bill that would authorize more than $100 million to help at-risk communities prevent wildfires and create a pilot program to cut down trees in the most fire-prone areas. Under a streamlined approval process, forest managers would “thin” pine forests near populated areas and do controlled burns in remote regions. The bill also calls for detailed reviews of any wildfire that burns over 100,000 acres.
Another bill by Senate Republicans would waive environmental reviews for projects up to 6,000 acres and overturn a federal court decision that forced more consultation between the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service on forest management projects.