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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bipartisan bill to help tribes and counties manage wildfire risk on federal land as ‘good neighbors’ gains momentum in Congress

Boaters enjoy a peaceful morning of fishing at Sullivan Lake in the Colville National Forest east of Metaline Falls, Washington, in 2011.  (RICH LANDERS/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Tribes and counties could keep revenue from timber projects on federal lands under a bill that’s gaining momentum in the House of Representatives, after several Washington Democrats backed legislation first introduced by two Idaho Republicans.

The measure would expand a program called Good Neighbor Authority, which Congress first enacted in 2014 to let states partner with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to conduct projects on federal land, such as thinning forests in an effort to make wildfires less severe. Lawmakers extended that authority to tribes and counties in 2018 but didn’t allow them to keep the revenue from those projects.

In March, Rep. Russ Fulcher and Sen. Jim Risch reintroduced a bill that would change that. And unlike when the two Idaho Republicans first introduced the bill in 2020, they now have the support of several Democrats, led by Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of southwest Washington.

“Frankly, the federal government is overwhelmed,” Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, said in an interview. “They don’t have the resources to manage all this land, so they don’t, and by default we wind up burning it up. That’s the blunt reality that we are dealing with, but Good Neighbor Authority is one of the bright spots.”

In fiscal year 2021, the Forest Service had 328 active Good Neighbor agreements with states but just six with counties and five with tribes, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Proponents say the Northwest lawmakers’ bill would make it financially viable for tribes and counties to do forest management and other projects – with the approval of federal agencies – on public lands that adjoin or overlap with their territory.

“All of America’s forests were once inhabited, managed and used by Indian people,” Cody Desautel, president of the Intertribal Timber Council, said in a May 23 hearing. He added that tribes actively manage the forests on their reservations, which provide important cultural, spiritual and economic value.

“Catastrophic wildfire can negatively impact all of these benefits for multiple generations. The risk of wildfire to Indian lands is compounded by the thousands of miles of shared boundary with federal agencies,” Desautel told the House Natural Resources Committee. “There are countless examples of wildfires spilling over from federal lands onto tribal forests, causing significant economic and ecologic losses.”

The bill also has the support of the National Association of Counties and the National Association of State Foresters. In an Agriculture Committee meeting May 11, Gluesenkamp Pérez said that when she told Washington’s state forester that the bill was moving forward, he sent her an email saying, “ ‘Great news,’ with six exclamation points.”

“This really is great news,” the freshman Democrat said. “This bill gives back the flexibilities under Good Neighbor Authority to tribes and counties, who understand that wildfires do not discriminate if they’re on federal or non-federal land. And it allows us to use all of the tools at our disposal to mitigate the effects of wildfire and maintain healthy forests.”

Gluesenkamp Pérez said Skamania County, where she lives, was the first county to sign a Good Neighbor agreement with Washington state. She pointed out that 80% of the county lies within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, making what happens on federal land critically important to residents of her district.

After she spoke, the Agriculture Committee voted unanimously to advance the bill to the House floor. Fulcher said he is optimistic that the Natural Resources Committee, which also has jurisdiction over the bill and of which he is a member, will also approve it soon.

While a handful of tribes have entered into Good Neighbor agreements – the Nez Perce Tribe did so in June 2022 – Desautel said in an interview that the bill could help tribes create a “perpetuating cycle,” where they would use revenue from one project to build their capacity and conduct environmental reviews for subsequent projects.

“That would increase the pace and scale of restoration activities to hopefully limit the impacts of catastrophic wildfire losses in the future,” said Desautel, who also serves as the executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

The bill has met opposition from some conservationists, who say it threatens to do harm by expediting the environmental review process, although Good Neighbor Authority projects are still subject to the National Environmental Policy Act.

“It guts environmental reviews,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “The Forest Service is essentially paying counties and tribes to rubber-stamp these projects to get them to support it, and with tribes, it will carry political weight. It’s a form of bribery.”

The Montana-based nonprofit has sued to stop a Good Neighbor Authority project in Idaho, arguing that it is clearcutting an old-growth forest in Bonner County. On May 16, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling that had blocked the project.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, external relations director at the Idaho Conservation League, said Idaho has seen benefits from federal agencies authorizing the state to conduct forest management projects and expanding that authority to tribes and counties isn’t a cause for concern.

“In Idaho, we have definitely seen some increased capacity and increased efficiency as a result of the Good Neighbor Authority,” Oppenheimer said, but he added that although the program is intended to facilitate several kinds of projects – such as restoring fish habitat or planting trees – so far it has been used almost exclusively for timber harvesting.

When Fulcher and Risch first introduced the bill in 2020, Democrats held the House majority and Republicans controlled the White House and Senate. That dynamic has now flipped and the legislation still would need bipartisan support to become law.

In the House, the bill is cosponsored by Gluesenkamp Pérez and three of her fellow Washington Democrats: Reps. Kim Schrier of Sammamish, Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor and Suzan DelBene of Medina. GOP Reps. Dan Newhouse of central Washington and Ryan Zinke of western Montana are also cosponsors, along with Rep. Gabe Vasquez, a New Mexico Democrat.

In the Senate, the bill has the support of two Democrats – Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Alex Padilla of California – as well as Republican Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho and Steve Daines of Montana.

In a statement, Risch said he hopes to include the measure in a sweeping legislative package Congress passes every five years to set agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry policy, informally called the “farm bill.” Lawmakers are due to pass that legislation later this year.

“I’m optimistic there is a path forward on our bipartisan Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) legislation,” Risch said. “GNA, given its effectiveness and popularity, is a top farm bill priority for me, and I am committed to working with my colleagues to incorporate it into the final bill text.”

A spokesman for Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the panel has a policy of not commenting on whether specific legislation will be included in the farm bill. Spokespeople for Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell did not respond to questions about the Washington Democrats’ positions on the Good Neighbor Authority legislation.

Desautel said he would like Congress to pass the bill on its own before the farm bill so that tribes could benefit from funding that was appropriated through the bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed in 2021.