Westerman's forests bill advances

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee voted Tuesday for legislation that would overhaul the way the nation's forests are managed, making it easier to bypass environmental regulations and increasing the amount of money available to battle wildfires.

Lawmakers voted 11-9 to approve an amended version of HR2647, a bill that is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Hot Springs Republican.

The legislation would enable federal officials, when there's a disaster, to quickly implement salvage operations and re-forestry efforts, bypassing the sorts of environmental studies that are typically required.

It would also speed up the regulatory process on many other projects and make it harder for environmentalists to block them.

In the event of a large blaze, the president also would be empowered to declare a major wildfire disaster. Once the cost of the year's fire suppression surpasses the 10-year average, the U.S. Forest Service would be able to secure additional funding.

Republican committee members backed the bill. Democrats opposed it. The White House has raised concerns about HR2647, saying it would undermine environmental safeguards and wouldn't provide sufficient funding.

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $1.7 billion battling fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Overall, federal spending on fire suppression topped $2.1 billion, the agency said.

On Tuesday, there were 18 large fires burning, including five in California. This year, nearly 4.8 million acres have been scorched, the agency reported.

Twenty years ago, the Forest Service spent about one-sixth of its budget on fire suppression. By last year, fires were consuming roughly half of the agency's budget.

When funds set aside for firefighting have been extinguished, the Forest Service is forced to use funds that would otherwise be spent on other activities, including fire prevention programs, wildlife habitat and trail maintenance. The practice is known as "fire borrowing."

Without changes, officials estimate that two-thirds of the budget will be spent on firefighting by 2025.

After Tuesday's vote, Westerman said he welcomed the amended bill's passage.

"More than 10 million acres went up in smoke in 2015 as a result of decades of unmanaged forests and a government spending more on fighting fires and special interest groups in court than managing the forests in scientifically-proven ways," he said in a written statement. The legislation "reins in frivolous lawsuits, allows federal agencies to manage the national forest system in a scientifically-sound way, and ends fire-borrowing in a cost-effective manner."

Westerman's original legislation passed 262-167 in the House in July 2015.

Until Tuesday morning, it was known as the Resilient Federal Forests Act. Senators voted to scrap that name and call it the Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016.

By the time the committee was finished, the legislation was 78 pages long. Westerman's had been 63 pages.

The revised version contained many of Westerman's original provisions, but it added numerous provisions, including language authorizing the sale of tracts in the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana and the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia.

Senators scrapped provisions in the original bill that would have required people to post a bond before challenging certain forest management practices in court. Those filing unsuccessful lawsuits would have been required to pay for the federal government's costs, expenses and attorneys' fees.

On Monday, several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, had signed a letter opposing the legislation.

"This bill does not address the fundamental issues needed to protect communities from severe wildfires, fails to address wildfire funding at the U.S. Forest Service, and does not protect America's forests or make them more resilient," it said.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers, serves on the committee and praised Westerman's leadership on the issue.

Westerman, a first-term lawmaker, is the only member of Congress with a graduate degree in forestry.

"This is a guy that's working so hard for the forest industry in Arkansas and has made a big mark," the senator said. "The bottom line is, at the end of the day, forests will be healthy in Arkansas as a result of getting legislation like this passed."

Boozman said there's a decent chance the legislation will pass in the Senate before year's end.

Business on 09/14/2016

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