A bill reshaping federal forest land management passed the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday, splitting Oregon's delegation on the vote and underscoring their disagreement on how best to prevent dangerous and expensive wildfires.
Not only is there long-standing debate among lawmakers and activists on how best to balance environmental protection, stewardship and business enterprise, but also on which step of fire prevention comes first: funding or management.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act addresses the latter, focusing on expedited approval of logging by loosening some environmental regulations.
Two Oregon delegates, bill co-sponsor Republican Rep. Greg Walden and Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, voted for the legislation, praising it for providing flexibility to the forest service in fighting fires and giving more access for salvage logging after a large fire.
"Bottom line is what we're doing now is obviously not working," Schrader said. "This bill was a significant step forward."
Fires burned more than 678,000 acres across the state in 2017, much of it on federal land. Nationally, wildfires killed dozens and cost around $2.9 billion to fight, a record amount for one year.
"We can reduce the size and intensity of fire up to 70 percent if we do the kinds of projects that thin out the forests and allow us to better manage and be better stewards of our federal forests," Walden said in a statement.
Schrader said it is important that funds be there to adequately fight fires, but better front-end management is needed.
The Oregon lawmakers who voted no fell more on the funding and environmental side of the arguments.
"In my state alone, there's 1.8 million acres waiting for treatment," said Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio said during a floor speech this week. "But they don't have the money. Does this bill fix that? No. We're addressing problems that don't exist."
DeFazio joined Walden and Schrader in introducing an amendment to the legislation that protected, from the bill, lands designated as Wild & Scenic, Wilderness or National Trail System, among others, but in the end he voted against the bill.
While he said he appreciated the provisions that partially address "fire borrowing" — the process of taking money from other budgeted areas to fight wildfires — the limits to judicial review and the lack of funding stood out.
His colleagues in the "nay" camp felt similarly.
"The House chose to undermine bedrock environmental laws, interfere with judicial review, and sacrifice the integrity of our public lands in the name of a false fix for wildfires," Democrat Rep. Earl Blumenauer said in a statement
"When this bill goes to the Senate, I hope it comes back with policy that improves forest management without undermining environmental protections," Democrat Rep. Suzanne Bonamici said in a statement. "We must put an end to the practice of fire-borrowing and we need to better manage our federal forests."
Several bills addressing this issue have been introduced, but some in D.C. expect this will be the only major piece of legislation on this issue to see a vote by the end of the year.
It passed with some bipartisan support in the House — 10 Democrats voted for, while nine Republicans voted against — but could be in trouble in the Senate, where similar bills have died in the past and top Democrats have already voiced opposition.
Oregon's Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley both said the bill wouldn't receive their support.
"These overreaching riders create more problems than they solve and would likely harm forest health, rather than improve it," Wyden said in a statement. "The key to forest health is smart, effective, ecologically appropriate management."
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