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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wildfire bill passes in U.S. House

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers says a piece of wide-ranging legislation she helped push through the House of Representatives will help federal forestland rebound after devastating wildfires.

“It seems like every year, we’re facing larger and larger catastrophic fires,” she said Friday. “This legislation does a lot to address that.”

Democrats, including President Barack Obama, argue the bill introduces unrealistic expectations, limits public involvement in reconstruction and takes money away from other needed projects.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 passed the House earlier this week, 262-167. Nineteen Democrats, including two from Oregon, joined the Republican majority in voting to approve the legislation. No Washington Democrats voted for the bill, which would affect fires burning on federal lands. The Cape Horn fire in Idaho, and the 231 Complex, 21-Mile Grade, Williams and Wolverine fires burning this summer in Eastern Washington all have involved federal forestland.

The plan includes provisions introduced earlier by McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking GOP member in the House. She said Friday the law will help ensure enough money is set aside for wildfire-fighting efforts, which have continued to swallow a larger chunk of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget every year.

More than 40 percent of the Forest Service’s budget was spent on wildfire management in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and McMorris Rodgers said some of that money is taken from projects to promote thinning and other preventive measures.

“Every year, it seems like the federal Forest Service has had to rob other accounts in order to pay for wildfires,” she said. “This legislation creates a new mechanism to solve the wildfire borrowing problem.”

In a statement opposing the legislation, the Obama administration said the funding option contained in its own budget proposal would address the wildfire threat more adequately by giving federal foresters more money for landscape restoration.

The administration also expressed concern about provisions in the law that would allow federal agencies to avoid a rigorous environmental review for replanting trees and thinning fuels on land smaller than 15,000 acres. Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, have echoed those concerns.

But McMorris Rodgers pointed to the “A to Z” Mill Creek Pilot Project, a 10-year clearing contract between a private timber company and the Colville National Forest on 55,000 acres, as a model of the collaborative projects the House legislation could create. The bill creates more possibilities for similar partnerships that could help clear burned or diseased forests. The timber sales could raise money to fight fires, McMorris Rodgers said.

“The goal is to incentivize more collaboration at the local level, with all the stakeholders meeting to come together and reach an agreement,” she said, noting that lawsuits had declined following the project’s creation.

The bill also requires anyone requesting judicial review of such a collaborative project to put forward a cash bond before filing, which supporters say is designed to protect the partnerships from frivolous litigation but has several environmental groups crying foul. A last-minute amendment that would have removed that section of the bill was voted down.

McMorris Rodgers also said the law allows restoration to occur more quickly following a devastating wildfire. The law requires that 75 percent of damaged trees be replanted within five years of a catastrophic wildfire.

Critics say that number is unrealistic, given that the current reforestation rate is about 3 percent, and the House bill focuses on allocating money for wildfire suppression, not replanting.

No companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate.