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Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill would invest billions to combat wildfires

Included in the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill unveiled in the U.S. Senate is money dedicated to fighting and preventing wildfire, such as the massive Bootleg fire in southern Oregon, pictured last Wednesday.  (Bootleg Fire Incident Command)
Included in the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill unveiled in the U.S. Senate is money dedicated to fighting and preventing wildfire, such as the massive Bootleg fire in southern Oregon, pictured last Wednesday. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command)

WASHINGTON – Over the weekend, as smoke from Western fires cast a thin haze in the sky above the Capitol, senators unveiled the details of a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would make a historic investment to combat wildfires.

Along with major investments to improve roads, railways, internet access, water pipes and more, the legislation would spend nearly $3.4 billion on wildland firefighting efforts. Another $5.75 billion would go toward natural resource-related infrastructure, including fire management and restoration.

A bipartisan group of moderate senators negotiated the package, which includes roughly $550 billion in new spending over five years along with about $450 billion in previously approved funds. The Senate began voting on amendments to the bill Monday evening, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday he believed the chamber could pass the bill “in a matter of days.”

Even as Western wildfires have grown increasingly destructive in recent years, Congress has remained largely divided over their causes, with Democrats emphasizing the role of climate change and Republicans focused on forest management practices that have let dense vegetation fuel more intense fires.

That split kept lawmakers from passing much bipartisan wildfire legislation under former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the impact of a warming climate, but President Joe Biden has promised to direct more federal resources at both problems. In a virtual meeting with the governors of several Western states on Friday, Biden asked Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana to explain the importance of thinning trees so that fires don’t burn as hot and spread as fast as they do in dense forest.

“Believe it or not, I knew that,” Biden said when Gianforte finished his explanation. “But that’s really important for people to get it. … I’m hopeful that we’re going to get a lot of the infrastructure plan passed … that has a lot of money in here to help you all manage these forests.”

Mark Swanson, an associate professor of forestry at Washington State University, said lawmakers in Congress need to understand those factors aren’t mutually exclusive.

“We’re seeing a perfect storm of climate change and the accumulation of fuels from the period of fire exclusion,” he said, referring to the policy of putting out nearly all fires that has led to denser forests than existed before white settlers arrived.

Other factors, Swanson said, include population growth that has brought more accidental fires and more people living in areas susceptible to fire, and the federal government barring Native Americans from using controlled burns and other traditional forest management tools.

“American politics is always at its best when it can work across the aisle,” Swanson said. “Landscapes are complex. Fire is complex. And we need the policymakers to get the right people in to engineer and implement solutions that are sufficiently complex and nuanced.”

The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes several components that could help stem climate change – including $7.5 billion to build electric vehicle charging stations and $39 billion to modernize transit systems – it also focuses on coping with the already-present effects of a warming planet.

The nearly $3.4 billion aimed specifically at fighting wildfires – split between the Interior Department and the Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture – includes $500 million each for tree thinning, prescribed fires, and grants to help communities prepare for wildfires. Another $200 million would go toward post-fire restoration work.

Under separate sections, the bill would also give the two agencies $225 million to rehabilitate burned areas, nearly $103 million for the Forest Service to reduce hazardous fuels. Another $100 million would help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration improve its weather forecasts and data collection around fires.

The bill would also raise pay for federal wildland firefighters, who often earn less than their counterparts employed by state agencies, and convert at least 1,000 seasonal firefighter jobs to full-time, year-round positions.

The bill senators unveiled Sunday night is not a finished product and other wildfire-related provisions could be added through the amendment process that began Monday. For instance, Sen. Maria Cantwell plans to reintroduce an amendment she previously proposed with fellow Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon that would increase funding for hazardous fuel reduction, Cantwell spokeswoman Ansley Lacitis said Monday.

The Senate infrastructure package isn’t the only effort in Congress to combat wildfires and their effects. As fires rages across the West, the past two weeks saw a flurry of bills dealing with everything from forest management to research on the impact of smoke.

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside were among several Republicans who introduced the “Resilient Federal Forests Act” on July 23, a bill that would reduce regulations and environmental reviews to speed forest management projects in forests at the highest risk of severe fires.

McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse have also sponsored the “MALDEN Act,” legislation that would give rural communities more resources to deal with wildfires and prevent a president from blocking federal aid, as Trump did after the Whitman County towns of Malden and Pine City were devastated by a fire last September.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, introduced a bill July 22 that would let governors work directly with land management agencies to thin forests and expedite environmental reviews. Risch also recently reintroduced a bill with Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican whose district includes North Idaho, that would give tribal and county governments more forest management authority and let them collect revenue from timber sales on public lands.

Northwest lawmakers also spearheaded a key change to federal wildfire policy in 2018, when a yearslong effort led by Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, created a firefighting budget separate from the Forest Service’s budget, which until then was routinely drained by firefighting expenses.

In a procedural vote on Friday to begin debate on the infrastructure bill, Cantwell, Crapo and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., all voted in favor, although that doesn’t mean they will vote the same way on the final bill. Risch did not vote Friday.

Even a single senator could hold up the process enough to push a final vote on the bill past the end of the week, but Schumer is counting on senators wanting to go home for their annual recess that starts Friday.

At least 60 senators will need to support the package in order to send it to the House, where it would need only a simple majority to pass. The House is not scheduled to return from its own recess until Sept. 20.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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