Lawmakers promise fresh push on wildfire bills after summer break

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Republican lawmakers pledge to tackle an issue burning up the nation’s forests when they return from their seven-week summer break in September.

Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas plan to push legislation in September tackling reforms to how the U.S. Forest Service fights wildfires.

Roberts introduced the Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016 in June and promised to push it in the Senate Agriculture Committee, which he heads, when Congress returns after Labor Day. The legislation is similar to that proposed by Westerman that passed the House in July 2015 but has since sat in Roberts’ committee.

Roberts told reporters Friday there are some complicating issues with wildfire legislation, but he intends to put it on the forefront of the Senate’s legislative priorities in the fall.

“This is the kind of bill you can talk about despite all of the difference and despite a year that’s pretty high on politics,” he said.

The bills would permanently stop “fire borrowing,” the term used for taking money from other parts of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management budgets to pay for fighting fires. This practice is blamed for a large backlog of unfinished projects on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.

In addition, the bills would expedite the authorization process for approving forest thinning and other projects that reduce fuel for wildfires. That would include quicker environmental impact statements, which can take three years and cost about $1 million.

Bishop said a combination of more funding and management changes are needed to help federal agencies in the West fight wildfires.

“The Forest Service is working with us, they have ideas and they’re excited,” he said.

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Bishop added, “These are the kinds of things they could implement immediately, if we just passed them.”

Last year was the worst fire season on record, with more than 10 million acres of the United States going up in smoke. It’s possible the 2016 fire season could be worse. As of Friday, 24 wildfires were burning in the western United States and Alaska, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Given the short amount of time Congress has left in the current legislative session, questions about how to get the bills to President Obama’s desk remain.

Bishop isn’t ruling out any vehicles to get them passed. He said the conference on the comprehensive energy bill is a possibility, as are the appropriations bills floating in Congress and a potential omnibus budget bill that could come at the end of the year.

The challenge is communicating the need to pass wildfire legislation to lawmakers from the northern and eastern parts of the country where fire isn’t as pressing of an issue as it is in the West.

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Westerman said it could be possible to appeal to lawmakers from more populated areas by explaining how much carbon is released into the atmosphere when a wildfire takes place. Last year’s wildfire season resulted in 100 million tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere due to burning trees, he said. That should get some people’s attention.

“We have to do a good job of visiting with those members from more populated areas and help them understand that what happens in our forests is important to everyone in our country,” he said.

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