Oregon Delegation Splits Over Forest Fire Bill

The forest fire season started early because of extremely dry conditions and now there is a firestorm in Congress over how to pay for fighting those wildfires. Photo by Les Zaitz of The Oregonian. 

The forest fire season started early because of extremely dry conditions and now there is a firestorm in Congress over how to pay for fighting those wildfires. Photo by Les Zaitz of The Oregonian

Dry conditions on the West Coast have accelerated this year's wildfire season and set up a heated debate in Congress over how to pay for fire-fighting.

Fighting forest fires is an expensive proposition. In Oregon and Washington alone, forest fires cost the federal government $461 million in 2014. The total is already more than $17 million in 2015, including the 28,766-acre Corner Creek Fire near Dayville.

The House of Representatives  passed a forest management bill with a bipartisan vote of 262-167, but only two of four Oregon Democrats (Congressmen Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader) joined 17 Democrats, Republican Congressman Greg Walden and nearly all House Republicans to pass H.R. 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. The bill would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fund wildfire expenses so the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have to borrow from other activities, reduces regulatory review of collaborative forest projects and requires legal challengers of those projects to post bonds covering the Forest Service’s defense costs. It also would limit the ability of government challengers to get their legal costs repaid if they win.
 
On the floor, Congressman Greg Walden thanked Schrader for his support. "My colleague from Oregon (Mr. Schrader) spoke eloquently about what our State faces and our rural communities face, and that is why this Resilient Federal Forests Act is so important to beginning to be a game changer, to getting us back into active management of our Federal forestlands, to reducing the threat of wildfire, the cost of wildfire, the destruction of wildfire, and the incredible pollution from wildfire. As we speak here today on the House floor, brave firefighters are still trying to contain the Corner Creek fire, which has already burned nearly 29,000 acres of forestland near Dayville, Oregon, in my district--29,000 acres already burned. And unfortunately, this fire season in the West has only just begun. Among the many strong provisions in this bill are streamlining planning, reducing frivolous lawsuits, and speeding up the pace of forest management. Several in particular are helpful to our great State of Oregon."
 
The legislation faces challenges in the Senate as Democrats have environmental concerns and President Obama opposes the bill. Obama's opposition comes despite U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell's comments that he was encouraged by the bill, noting that it didn’t override environmental laws.

Senator Ron Wyden prefers to address forest health in Oregon with his O&C lands bill (S.132), which he believes will double timber harvests in a sustainable way and also protect forest health. There is a hearing on Wyden's O&C lands bill this Thursday in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining.
 
Environmental groups generally oppose H.R. 2647 because of the environmental streamlining provisions and added burden to file a lawsuit.