WASHINGTON – With current budget constraints known as sequestration in effect, members of Congress face tough choices, but as wildfire season gets underway, two bills meant to control blazes advanced Tuesday in the House of Representatives.
The House Appropriations Committee allocated $3 billion in its spending bill for the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to prevent and combat wildfires.
The Senate version of the Interior spending bill increases funding for the Forest Service by $67 million from current levels. Seventy percent of the $5.12 billion allocated to the Forest Service was slotted for fire suppression.
Debate and votes on amendments to the House bill continued Tuesday evening. Lawmakers expressed concern over the litigation costs, which are not included in the budget.
“Litigation is a significant unbudgeted cost for all agencies. The committee is concerned that, as budgets shrink, agencies are forced to settle lawsuits quickly because they don’t have funds available to complete court-imposed work,” the bill’s text reads.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, an amalgam of forest-management bills that includes input from U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez. picks up where the concerns with the appropriations bill left off. Lawmakers again emphasizing problems caused as legal battles prolong work in forests and cause delays to forest-management treatments and approval of logging projects.
The bill, which went to the Rules Committee and could go to the House floor for votes as early as Wednesday, seeks to block citizen appeals through the National Environmental Policy Act.
One sticking point for those who would bring lawsuits is that the Forest Resiliency Act would allow logging contractors to harvest as much as 5,000 acres in salvage operations to remove hazardous fuel. If the project is part of a local collaboration, the limit can be up to 15,000 acres.
Language in the bill premises these allowances on disaster conditions – the drought, and insect infestations that they say make the trees more susceptible to fire.
“Why not turn it into jobs and 2-by-4s that people use to build their homes,” said Nancy Fishering, public affairs coordinator for the Colorado Timber Association.
Environmentalists point to studies at the University of Colorado that superimposed burned areas with insect-infested ones to show a lack of a correlation between the two.
However, Mark Finney, a Forest Service scientist, disputes the CU study, saying the harm caused by insect-infested trees is not necessarily the spread of fires, but rather that it makes them burn more intensely and longer, which he says makes them more difficult to suppress.
Mariam Baksh is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.