U.S. House passes major wildfire and drought package
The U.S. House approved, 218-199, on Friday a massive package of bills to address the growing threat of wildfire and drought in the West.
The measure includes 49 standalone bills from both Democrats and Republicans. It includes provisions to make permanent an increase in wildland firefighter pay, lift a cap on the federal cost share for post-fire recovery funding and authorize more than $1.5 billion for water infrastructure to help manage drought conditions.
Republicans said the spending would not meaningfully improve fire prevention and called for allowing more logging to thin forests.
There were 217 Democrats who voted in favor of the bill, and one Republican. One Democrat was opposed and 198 Republicans.
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The package’s future is unclear. The White House issued a statement that fell short of full support and members of the Senate have not indicated they would take up the legislation.
Colorado Democrat Joe Neguse, the chairman of a House subcommittee on public lands and forestry, sponsored the omnibus measure and led debate on the floor Friday.
In the last two years, three catastrophic wildfires have devastated parts Neguse’s Boulder-area district, he said on the House floor Friday. Responding to such events now takes up much of his and other congressional offices’ time.
“We have a duty to provide our constituents with the support that they need to rebuild and to recover,” Neguse said. “The reality is that we are living with a new normal as climate change results in a hotter, drier planet where historic drought and record setting wildfires are not merely a possibility, but an inevitability.”
Wildfires have devastated New Mexico as well this year, with the Forest Service blamed for the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history.
Neguse highlighted the firefighter pay measure, which would indefinitely extend a raise to a minimum of $20 per hour enacted in last year’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law. Without congressional action, the raise would expire at the end of September 2023.
The package also includes a Neguse bill to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to lift the cap on the federal share of fire assistance grants. The cap is currently 75%, but the bill would direct FEMA to determine circumstances when the federal share could be higher.
The measure would ratify a 10-year plan for the U.S. Forest Service, authorizing $1.5 billion per year for the next decade for fire-related programs. It would also authorize spending on large scale forest projects the administration has already identified.
Those projects include the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, known as 4FRI, and Greater Prescott Area Wildlife Protection and Restoration in Arizona, the Colorado Front Range, Southwest Idaho, the Kootenai Complex in Montana, the Enchanted Circle in New Mexico and Central Oregon.
The package also includes several water bills, including a measure to provide $1 billion for tribal water infrastructure grants.
The bill would authorize $700 million more for a water-recycling project created in the infrastructure law.
New Mexico Democrat Melanie Stansbury sponsored three water bills, including bills to authorize $500 million to help keep Colorado River Basin reservoirs from declining to critical levels and to establish a management plan for the Rio Grande Basin.
“We must pass this legislation so that our communities have the tools and the resources that they need to remain resilient,” Stansbury said.
The package would also establish a National Disaster Safety Board to collect data on natural disasters and provide recommendations to prevent future loss of life. It would create another board to study wildfire impacts and the effects of climate change on fires.
White House lukewarm
The Biden administration offered qualified support for House passage of the bill in a July 26 statement from the Office of Management and Budget.
“The Administration appreciates the interest of Congress in the Administration’s efforts to address climate change and its effects on wildfires and drought,” the statement said. “The Administration would like to work with the Congress to ensure the many provisions in the Act avoid duplication with existing authorities and Administration efforts.”
Republicans raised a host of objections to the bill, including that it did not meaningfully update federal forest management practices to allow for more logging and that they were excluded from contributing at the committee level.
Logging helps keep forests from becoming overgrown with brush that can make fires more intense and spread faster, they said.
“Excess timber will always come out of the forest,” U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said. “Either we will carry it out, or nature will burn it out. When we carried it out by logging, we enjoyed healthy forests and a thriving economy … Our forests are now morbidly overgrown and nature is again burning out the excess.
“This bill does nothing to reform the laws that have made active forest management impossible, and instead it consigns us to fight a losing battle.”
House Natural Resources ranking Republican Bruce Westerman of Arkansas also said one of the bill’s most central features — the raise in firefighter pay — was more style than substance, as it would only extend a current policy. Because infrastructure law already set firefighter pay at $20 per hour, Friday’s bill did nothing, he said.
“You should never confuse motion with action, which is exactly what the legislation before us today does,” he said on the House floor. “This bill is more than 550 pages that does absolutely nothing to prevent wildfires or significantly improve our resiliency to drought.”
Permanent pay raise
Neguse took issue with Westerman’s description, noting that the pay raise in the infrastructure bill was set to expire next year. The House bill would make the raise permanent.
Additionally, Westerman said the U.S. Forest Service has told Republicans on the committee that without additional appropriations, the pay raise would require layoffs of hundreds of firefighters.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that was the nature of Congress, where bills authorizing federal funding levels are typically passed separately from those that actually appropriate the spending.
“Some say this is an authorizing bill,” Hoyer said. “It is an authorizing bill. That’s regular order. It will be our responsibility, then, to appropriate the funds that are necessary to carry out the objectives of this bill, and I hope we can do so in a bipartisan way.”
The Senate has not scheduled any consideration of the measure.
A spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would have jurisdiction over most of the package, declined to comment Friday.