Legislators Discuss Response to Wildfires in the West

By Ana Beatriz Goncalves and Leslie Haymon

Severe wildfires in northern California have leveled homes and killed residents, while other fires continue to rage across several other Western states. As the recovery and rebuilding begin, Congress continues to examine the best way to prevent and mitigate wildfires in the West. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works met on September 27 to consider three wildfire related pieces of legislation.

The Sage-Grouse and Mule Deer Habitat Conservation and Restoration Act streamlines vegetation management projects on public lands. This legislation would improve habitat for these critical species while expediting removal of especially fire prone invasive species, like Piñon and Juniper trees.

The Litigation Relief for Forest Management Projects Act would codify an Obama era policy that federal agencies did not need to re-consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, when new critical habitat is designated or a new species is listed as endangered. This legislation reverses a finding by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that agencies were required to consult with FWS, a decision that could limit the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s ability to manage vegetation on public lands.

The Forest Management Improvement Act of 2017 creates new categorical exclusions for projects dedicated to forest thinning, wildlife habitat improvement, salvage of dead and dying trees, and creation of areas of new growth. The National Wildlife Federation expressed concern that the categorical exclusions could be interpreted too broadly, limiting environmental safeguards and allowing permanent road creation on public lands.

The Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act was reintroduced to provide additional funding and resources to communities affected by wildfires. Under current law, hazard mitigation funding is only available following a major disaster declaration by the President. This bill amends the Stafford Act to allow the President to declare wildfires a major disaster, allowing states to access the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. This would permit communities to undertake efforts that reduce vegetation around homes, reduce post-fire erosion, and monitor environmental quality.

Meanwhile, the House passed a supplemental appropriations bill on October 10 to provide funding for the ongoing wildfire recovery efforts in California and the West. The Senate has not indicated when or if it will take up this package.

States and localities are on the front line of fighting and preventing wildfires, making federal appropriations to support their efforts especially important. Long term discussions of how to prevent and mitigate wildfires will continue in Washington.