A bipartisan group of Western lawmakers have signed onto a new federal bill that aims to reduce the damages of wildfire.
The legislation, called the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020, would fund three massive land management projects intended to reduce fire risk and damage, and could include actions such as logging, prescribed burns and rehabilitating damaged ecosystems.
The locations for those activities aren’t listed, but instead would be selected by the Agriculture Secretary within 90 days of the bill’s passage. State governors can submit proposals for projects in their states, though. Each project could be significant in any given state, taking place on up to 75,000 acres of federal land or land bordering federal land.
Dennis Becker, for one, is excited that the legislation promotes coordination between governments and stakeholders. He’s the dean of the college of Natural Sciences at the University of Idaho and has studied collaborative management of public lands.
His team found that more collaboration meant “appeals and litigation goes down… the amount of acreage goes up and the time of planning that’s involved doesn’t change. In other words, it takes no longer to do those projects than to do projects where there’s not collaboration happening."
The bill would lessen the likelihood of the projects getting tied up in litigation by laxing some requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act on national forest lands, a move opposed by groups such as The Wilderness Society.
It would also help fund some other initiatives, like shoring up the energy grid in fire-prone places, providing grants and loans for biomass facilities, and funding education grants for various forest and fire-related jobs. There’s even a proposal for a new center to train people in using prescribed burns.
That training and education is just as important as the major landscape projects, according to Becker.
“That workforce is not only the people doing prescribed burning, the folks working in the woods, but it’s also the communities and how community planning happens. And how we do zoning for instance, within the wildland urban interface,” he said.
Beyond that, Becker is happy to see more investment go towards wildfire management, even if the ideas and plans proposed in this bill aren’t new.
Introduced by Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Cali., and Steve Daines, R-Mont, the two testified on the bill before the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining on September 16. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo of Idaho and Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, all Republicans, have signed on as cosponsors.
The Congressional Budget Office has not yet come out with an approximate cost for this bill.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.