Fourteen years ago, congressional colleagues and I crafted the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (HFRA) to help provide the U.S. Forest Service with the tools needed to do the necessary work on the ground to restore our forests to health and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire to our communities and ecosystems.
With the National Interagency Fire Center reporting more than 45,000 fires burning more than 6.9 million acres since the beginning of this year alone—approximately 2.4 million more acres than during the first nearly seven months of 2016—we must continue to work to ensure that federal fire policy keeps pace with this continued threat. I have agreed to again be an original co-sponsor of legislation that would amend the Healthy Forests Act to better ensure that those closest to the forests have the ability to reduce hazardous fuels in the forests in a timely manner.
S. 1752, the Emergency Fuel Reduction Act, introduced by Senator Dean Heller (R-Nevada) and also co-sponsored by fellow Idaho Senator Jim Risch, would streamline the federal permitting process for projects that would reduce risk of wildfires to communities, and improve forest, watershed and rangeland health.
Projects that would qualify for a more efficient process include projects providing for the removal of insect-infected trees, dead or dying trees; and removal of trees and other hazardous fuels close to power and phone lines, water delivery infrastructure, heritage sites, schools and other important infrastructure. Projects on federal lands containing fire-risks that pose a threat to adjacent private property owners and lands containing critical habitat for endangered or threatened species, and candidate species could also be considered for this permitting process.
This legislation would build on the HFRA, which was designed to encourage fuel reduction efforts, protect old-growth forests, enhance water quality, promote community-based land management and public involvement in forest management and address insect and disease problems. HFRA has promoted stewardship contracting projects which incorporate public-private partnerships, emphasizing more localized forest management.
The legislation also compliments other provisions enacted since HFRA to advance forest health. This includes stewardship contracting authority and Good Neighbor authority included in the 2014 Farm Bill. Stewardship contracting authority provides a tool for federal land managers to carryout forest stewardship projects and avoid costly and time-consuming lawsuits, while Good Neighbor authority expanded the federal government’s ability to partner with state foresters on restoration projects, including bark beetle treatments, across state-federal boundaries.
I continue to maintain that the best way to manage our natural resources is through working together to advance locally-driven, collaborative solutions, and federal forest policy must support these efforts. Removing obstacles for common-sense projects to improve the health of our forests and reduce the threat of wildfire can help ensure a more productive environment for these collaborative solutions to take shape.
As work continues to adjust federal budgeting to address the largest and most destructive wildfires as the natural disasters they are, we must make any other necessary changes to federal law to ensure forest managers have the updated tools they need to improve the health of our forests to reduce the threat to our communities and ensure the continued enjoyment and productivity of these natural resources.