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Friday, May 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Western wildfires spark compromise on firefighting in Washington

This photo provided by KATU-TV shows the Eagle Creek wildfire as seen from Stevenson Wash., across the Columbia River, burning in the Columbia River Gorge above Cascade Locks, Ore., on Monday Sept. 4, 2017. (Tristan Fortsch / Associated Press)
This photo provided by KATU-TV shows the Eagle Creek wildfire as seen from Stevenson Wash., across the Columbia River, burning in the Columbia River Gorge above Cascade Locks, Ore., on Monday Sept. 4, 2017. (Tristan Fortsch / Associated Press)
By Dino Grandoni The Washington Post

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators is planning to introduce legislation designed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires like those that have raged this month out West.

Five Western senators – Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; James Risch, R-Idaho; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, and Patty Murray, D-Wash. – are expected to propose a measure designed as a compromise between Republicans eager to snip red tape preventing forest managers from thinning overgrown woods and Democrats leery of giving the greenlight to timber companies looking to harvest federally owned forests.

At the heart of the compromise is a pilot program to stop wildfires in the ponderosa pines. Woods populated with the species of tree are among the most vulnerable to catching fire.

Under the senators’ proposal, Congress would direct the Forest Service and Interior Department to treat these most at-risk forests. Under a streamlined approval process, forest managers would thin the pine forests near populated areas and do controlled burns in more remote regions. The bill also calls for reviews of any wildfire that burns over 100,000 acres to evaluate what to do in the future.

“It’s time to create new tools to reduce fire risk and help better protect our communities,” Cantwell said. “By targeting our most vulnerable pine forests, this science-based pilot program gives the Forest Service tools to address fire in our most vulnerable forests and prioritizes cross-laminated timber.”

Some timber industry, firefighting and conservation groups – including the American Forest Resource Council, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Wildlife Federation – offered early endorsements of the legislation.

“Senator Cantwell’s bipartisan, common-sense legislation will improve the quality and pace of forest restoration, help increase wildlife populations, and enhance watershed health – all of which will improve forest health and mitigate fire risks,” Collin O’Mara, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.

But it remains to be seen if other environmentalists usually allied with Cantwell and the other Democrats who have not scrutinized the bill will support it.

Even more importantly for bill’s fate, the House would need to back it, too.

In that chamber, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is pressing for the passage of a bill that would give the Forest Service even broader forest-management authority.

Under that proposal, from Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., the federal government could under its own pilot program thin trees on plots of land 10,000 acres or smaller without undergoing time-consuming environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Environmental groups blasted that bill as a giveaway to the timber industry while House Republicans insisted the streamlining was necessary to deal with the growing wildfires out West. A version of the bill passed the GOP-led House during the last session. In June, Bishop’s committee approved the latest iteration.

“If all we’re doing is throwing more money at wildfire suppression, that’s a futile program because you don’t solve the basic problem, which is forest management,” Bishop told The Post in September. “State and tribal areas that have forests have much healthier forests because they don’t have a lot of the restrictions the federal government does.”

On Wednesday, Bishop’s office said it was willing to hear the senators out.

“The continued attention reinforces the need for Congress to act,” Bishop spokeswoman Katie Schoettler said. “We look forward to working with the Senate on incorporating parts of the Westerman bill.”

Cantwell’s proposal came together in recent weeks as the Western wildfires showed no sign of abating. During the past week and a half, flames have scorched more than 200,000 acres in Northern California, killing more than 40 people and burning more than 3,500 buildings. Wildfires like this have burned portions of eight other states: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

One broad area of agreement between Republicans and Democrats is a need for overhauling how forest fires receive federal money. Right now, the Forest Service must siphon money from other parts of its budget to quash wildfires – fueling future forest fires since the agency has less money to take preventive measures, such as clearing underbrush.

Both Westerman’s bill, along with another from Wyden introduced in September, feature fixes to the funding practice, called “fire borrowing.”

But forest management is still a bone of contention – one that Cantwell’s measure seems to smooth over by going small.

One important thing to note: The ponderosa pine pilot program would only encompass 1 percent of land managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that is most susceptible to fire. While many of the wildfires out West this year indeed burned through the pines, the devastating fires around the Bay Area largely did not.

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