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US House Approves Forest Management Changes After Devastating Wildfire Season


Smoke from the Eagle Creek and Indian Creek wildfires clouds the Columbia River Gorge Monday, Sept. 4, 2017.

Smoke from the Eagle Creek and Indian Creek wildfires clouds the Columbia River Gorge Monday, Sept. 4, 2017.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

In the wake of this year’s horrific wildfire season, the U.S. House on Wednesday passed legislation aimed at reversing the rising fire danger in the nation’s forests and grasslands.

The measure, passed on a 232-188 vote, would increase timber harvests and relax some key environmental rules. It also seeks to relieve the U.S. Forest Service from being forced to cannibalize its fire prevention budget to pay for the rapidly escalating costs of combating wild-land blazes.

There’s wide agreement among lawmakers about the need to end so-called “fire borrowing,” which has forced the Forest Service to cut back on projects to thin fire-prone forests and help communities lower their fire danger.

That agreement breaks down when it comes to relaxing environmental rules. Environmentalists and the timber industry have been fighting each other for years over such issues as salvage logging in burned areas.

Democrats in the Senate — where the measure needs to gain a filibuster-proof 60 votes — say they’ll continue to oppose several of the provisions in the House-passed measure, known as the Resilient Federal Forests Act.  The Senate managed to block a similar measure passed by the House in 2016.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, a key backer of the new bill, said after the vote that there will be “some give and take” with the Senate that he hopes produces some agreement.

In the meantime, though, he said the measure could go a long way toward reducing catastrophic wildfire in future years.

“Anyone who lives in a wild-land urban interface community knows, you have to continually get that vegetation away from your house if you don’t want it to burn up,” said Walden.  “The same is true in our forests, you have to continually manage our forests.”

But opponents said the bill gives too much away to the timber industry.

“Perhaps a better name would be the Log America’s Forests Act of 2017,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, who has often worked with Walden on forest issues, also denounced the measure. He said Congress failed to meet its promises in a 2004 law to step up efforts to reduce forest fire dangers.

DeFazio said it wasn’t because of burdensome environmental restrictions.

“It’s because of this body — the United States Congress — refusing to put up the money to do the work,” he said.

Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden said they will work with other Democrats in the Senate to oppose many provisions of the House bill.

They said the Forest Service already has a backlog of thinning projects in Oregon and other states that it doesn’t have the money to pursue.

They joined eight other western Democratic senators in urging that the next disaster relief bill include $580 million for fire prevention activities and $200 million to help repair damage caused by the summer wildfires.

Walden said he’d be happy to support additional funding, but he expressed doubt about whether that would meet congressional and White House approval.

The big question now, lawmakers on both sides agreed, is whether the horrific fire season will help prod legislators to reach agreement on a compromise measure.

Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader was among 10 Democrats who supported the resilient forests bill.  Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici, both Oregon Democrats, opposed the measure.

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