Feinstein Working on Bill to Speed Up Logging, Other Forest Projects to Head Off Wildfire Risks

A stand of dead trees near Sierra Buttes in Tahoe National Forest in July 2019.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has joined with a Montana Republican to craft a bill that would expedite logging and other forest management projects near electrical transmission lines and roads in an effort to head off catastrophic wildfires.

The bill is also aimed at slowing or stopping lawsuits that block logging projects on federal land.

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Feinstein, a five-term Democrat, and first-term Sen. Steve Daines told The Associated Press they are working with U.S. Forest Service officials on finalizing the bill's text. They say they will introduce the bill after the Senate's August recess, but wanted to announce their plans now as the western U.S. states enter their peak fire season.

"Unfortunately, millions of acres of forests in our states and across the West remain at high risk of catastrophic wildfires, and there is strong consensus that fire seasons will only get worse," Feinstein and Daines said in a statement on Thursday.

“We’re working together to develop bipartisan legislation to improve management and speed up restoration of forest landscapes in California and Montana, create viable solutions for the removal of woody biomass and dead and dying trees, accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation, and expedite targeted treatments of dangerously dense forested areas where wildfires are most likely to start," the statement said.

Fire seasons have grown longer and more intense in recent years in the West because of hotter, drier weather and widespread tree deaths due to insects and disease.

In California, those conditions have helped fuel several years of devastating wildfires, including last November's Camp Fire in Butte County. That blaze, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in and around the town of Paradise.

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Montana has also been hard hit. In 2017, a flash drought led to a record 1.4 million acres being burned there. The state's portion of the $400 million firefighting price tag, some $74 million, nearly drained the state's budget and forced lawmakers into a special session to fill the gap.

Daines and Feinstein have been working on forest management reform proposals for several years, and the Paradise tragedy may be what pushes the legislation through a divided Congress, Daines said. He called the bipartisan effort a breakthrough.

"We have a strong friendship and we've worked together on other issues," Daines said of his relationship with Feinstein. "Both of our states are dealing with serious wildfire issues, and particularly public safety issues."

Daines' and Feinstein's legislation will include provisions to expedite logging, the removal of dead and dying trees, and other preventive fire treatment projects around roads, trails and transmission lines, such as those that caused the fire in Paradise.

Cal Fire investigators found that PG&E power lines have sparked a series of devastating wildfires over the past several years, including the Camp Fire.

The Feinstein-Daines bill will also seek to make it harder to sue to block logging projects on federal land.

Daines spokeswoman Katie Schoettler did not provide details but said the bill would address a past 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision on how federal agencies consult with each other on forest management plan updates, a ruling that has been the basis of several lawsuits by conservation groups.

Daines and other Montana leaders say those groups have abused the legal system by filing frivolous lawsuits to stop logging projects in national forests. The groups contend the logging projects have the potential to harm the habitat of threatened and endangered species.

The bill also would prioritize large-scale forest management projects in California and Montana, such as the removal of dead and dying trees, and encourage the Forest Service to speed up restoration and reforestation efforts on burned land.

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