WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman designed to increase timber harvests and reduce the chance of fires in the nation's forests.
The House voted 262-167 to pass HR2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. Nineteen Democrats joined 243 Republicans in supporting the bill. One Republican voted against the measure.
"I think people recognize that it's sound science. We need to do what's best for the forest and what's best for the communities around these forests," Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs, said after the vote.
The bill next heads to the Republican-controlled Senate. The White House opposes the legislation.
"We're going to work hard and try to get support in the Senate and hopefully they will take up the bill and pass it out of the Senate and put it on the president's desk," Westerman said.
Supporters of the measure say the U.S. Forest Service isn't adequately managing forests because of red tape and fear of lawsuits, leading to increasingly expensive fire seasons. Opponents, including President Barack Obama's administration and environmental groups, say the bill bypasses environmental laws and makes it hard for citizens to challenge forest-management plans in court.
Westerman has a master's degree in forestry from Yale University and worked as an engineer and forester for 22 years.
The bill was Westerman's first to go to the House floor, and he said afterward that he kept the piece of paper on which the vote was tallied and will frame it. He called the experience humbling.
"To think, I get to be a part of this and actually get to be the lead sponsor on a bill that [was] passed out of the House and, I think, has a good chance of becoming law and will impact millions of acres of land across the country," he said.
His bill would streamline environmental analyses, discourage litigation and limit the use of preliminary injunctions to make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to execute management plans that include removing trees or brush or selectively burning some areas to generate new growth.
In some instances, officials would be able to remove insect-infested, diseased or dead trees without performing the full environmental study currently mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., attempted to remove a portion of the bill that would require people suing the government to post a bond for the service's anticipated court costs and fees. If the government loses, the bond would be returned, but if the suing party doesn't win every part of the case, the government would keep as much of the bond as necessary to pay its legal costs. He said the cost would be too great for people with valid concerns.
His amendment failed, with 181 votes in favor and 247 against.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said on the House floor that the bond requirement would force environmental groups to think hard before challenging a management plan and would prevent frivolous litigation.
"What we're saying is, 'Look, if you're going to sue on something, sue on something realistic,'" he said.
In a statement released Wednesday, the Obama administration said the bill would undermine forest restoration, environmental safeguards and public participation across the national forest system. The administration said the legislation doesn't fix how the U.S. Forest Service pays to fight fires.
The administration's objections largely center on how to address the cost of fighting wildfires. Currently, the Forest Service uses its operating budget to fight catastrophic fires, leaving less money for forest management and fire prevention.
In a news release last month, the Forest Service said there is a 90 percent chance that fire-suppression expenses this year will be between $810 million and $1.62 billion.
The cost has increased from 16 percent of the agency's total budget in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015, the release states.
Last month, the chairmen of several House committees agreed to bring Westerman's bill to the House floor if it was modified to change federal law so that major wildfires on federal lands are eligible for federal disaster funding. The administration's statement said that the change requires the federal government to set aside money for wildfire suppression equal to the average amount spent in a year for the past 10 years.
The Obama administration said it prefers the method included in the president's 2016 budget, which would allow the Forest Service to use federal disaster funds once it spends, out of its own budget, 70 percent of the average annual cost of fire suppression over 10 years.
Metro on 07/10/2015
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