Wildfire funding fix confounds omnibus talks

Marc Heller and Geof Koss, E&E News reporters

Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A long-term solution to address the climbing cost of wildfires continued to stymie lawmakers yesterday, despite a near-agreement to loosen some environmental restrictions on timber harvesting.

Lawmakers, congressional aides and industry insiders tracking the issue said top lawmakers were on the cusp of a deal early this week, only to see it dashed for a reason that some hadn't seen as contentious: how to set up disaster funding so the Forest Service can cover the cost without hurting other programs.

The basic outline of a deal, they said, involved expanding certain categorical exclusions from the National Environmental Policy Act. The exceptions allowed for forest thinning on several thousand acres and expanding "good neighbor" authority that allows the Forest Service to work with states on forest management projects.

That was all right with House Republicans. But Capitol Hill sources said the idea of funding wildfires with disaster money ran into resistance from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who was inclined to rely on discretionary money instead.

Lawmakers were also close to an agreement to turn back the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' 2015 ruling in Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. Forest Service, which forced the agency to consult more closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service on forest projects that might affect endangered species. Overturning that ruling has been a priority for Western state lawmakers, but it also had the support of the Obama administration, which disagreed with the ruling.

According to industry sources and congressional offices, certain provisions sought by Sen. Lisa Murkowski were not expected to be included in the final bill. The Alaska Republican wants to boost timber harvesting in roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest and to slow the transition from old-growth to new-growth timber there.

A proposal from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) for a pilot program encouraging more active management in ponderosa pine forests also was in the balance and appeared unlikely to emerge in the omnibus, they said.

Senators said the details of a potential wildfire fix were still being discussed. Lawmakers such as Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Murkowski are insisting that any budget fix also contain provisions to encourage forest thinning, which they say will reduce wildfire threats.

"We've been holding tight with the House on that," Murkowski said.

If a deal doesn't emerge, Daines said, other opportunities may arise later in the year, including the usual lame-duck measures after the midterm elections.

Others, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), have pressed for a measure that doesn't include as many adjustments to environmental rules but that also uses disaster funds for wildfire expenses once they reach a certain threshold.

"Sen. [Chuck] Schumer [D-N.Y.] and I spend a big chunk of our waking hours on it, and we're continuing the discussions," Wyden said yesterday.

Advocates for a more active approach to forest management were almost ready to declare victory earlier in the week.

"I'm pretty confident that there'll be some fairly significant forest management changes that go with it if the fire funding fix is in there," said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the chief architect of legislation called the "Resilient Federal Forests Act," which would combine the two approaches.

Sensing that a scaling-back of environmental regulations was in the mix, a group of scientists wrote to lawmakers yesterday urging against what appeared to be an emerging package.

That group, led by the Geos Institute and John Muir Project, critical of logging, said the wildfire funding fix was being exploited to boost timber projects that undermine environmental protections. The group sent an open letter to lawmakers, collecting over 250 signatures from scientists opposing the provisions.

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