The 2020 wildfire season has been one of the most active on record. So far, 44,174 wildfires have burned 7.1 million acres, with over five million acres in California, Oregon and Washington alone. In Idaho, 15 wildfires have burned more than 200,000 acres so far.
The damage these fires have caused is disastrous. Thousands of people have lost their homes and property. Numerous communities have been destroyed. Millions of people have spent weeks breathing air choked with smoke and ash. And, many people have lost their lives.
Catastrophic wildfire will remain a threat to lives, property and forest resources unless we act decisively to reduce the risk. One way to do that is to actively manage our forests by reducing dead and dying fuel on the landscape. This is why we are proud to co-sponsor bipartisan forest management reform to equip federal land management agencies with the tools they need to protect communities from deadly wildfires.
The Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act is bipartisan legislation that will increase active management of federal forests, cut red tape, reduce frivolous litigation and advance fire risk reduction. Senators Steve Daines (R-Montana) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) worked across party lines for months to negotiate the details of this bill.
In September, we joined in co-sponsoring this bill, and as a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senator Risch spoke about the devastating wildfires and the need for S. 4431 at a recent Committee hearing.
This legislation will:
• Require the U.S. Forest Service to conduct three landscape-level fire reduction projects in the West proposed by a governor;
• Establish a prescribed fire center in the West;
• Provide relief from the Cottonwood decision by establishing a threshold for what qualifies as ‘new information’ triggering consultation;
• Establish a new Categorical Exclusion to accelerate management near roads, trails, and transmission lines;
• Establish a grant program to facilitate the removal of biomass from National Forest areas; and
•Create a competitive grant program for groups assisting in workforce development in the forestry sector.
Nearly 100 organizations representing the forest products industry, counties, conservation districts, sportsmen and sportswomen and more support the legislation. Farm Bureau organizations, including the Idaho Farm Bureau, wrote in support of S. 4431 and the need to increase the pace of forest management activities to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires, protect lives and communities and help safeguard western natural resources and economies.
They emphasized the impacts of wildfire on agriculture producers, “In addition to direct crop and livestock losses, agricultural commodities are also being impacted via smoke-taint and ash. Wildfire smoke is also exacerbating the public health risk to farmers and farmworkers continuously working to provide a safe food supply to Americans amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
We followed up the co-sponsorship of S. 4431 by joining a group of Senators and Representatives, including our fellow members of the Idaho Congressional Delegation Representatives Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher, in urging Senate and House Leadership to consider broad forest policy reform legislation before the end of this year. We wrote, “While Congress has enacted meaningful forestry provisions in recent years, it is clear we must do more or our communities will continue to pay the price. . . . We urge you to build on the bipartisan reforms enacted in 2014 and 2018 and take action to protect at-risk communities by accelerating bold, broad, bipartisan forest management reform before the end of the year.”
Enactment of the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act will reinforce the successful enactment of bipartisan legislation we pushed for to enable federal agencies to respond to wildfires as they would other natural disasters and end fire borrowing.
The severity of the fires makes clear we cannot let up in working to ensure firefighters and land management agencies have the resources necessary to prepare for wildfire response and reduce the threat of wildfires. We look forward to getting this legislation signed into law.