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Wildfire Protection in the 108th Congress (pdf)

15-Sep-2003; Ross W. Gorte; 11 p.

Update: September 15, 2003


On July 31, 2003, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry reported the Healthy Forests RestorationAct of 2003, H.R. 1904 (S.Rept. 108-121). The bill had passed the House on May 20. Other bills also have been introduced, including the Collaborative Forest Health Act, S. 1314; the Community and Forest Protection Act, H.R. 2639 and S. 1352; Americas Healthy Forest Restoration and Research Act, S. 1449; and the Forestry and Community Assistance Act of 2003, S. 1453. S. 1314 was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and the Committee held hearings on this bill and on H.R. 1904 and S. 1352 on July 22, 2003. S. 1352, S. 1449, and S. 1453 were referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. H.R. 2639 was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture and the House Committee on Resources.

On July 17, 2003, the House passed the FY2004 Interior Appropriations bill (H.R. 2691; H.Rept. 108-195), with $2.32 billion for the National Fire Plan (for the Forest Service and Department of the Interior), $82.9 million (4%) more than the $2.24 billion the Administration requested. On July 10, the Senate Committee on Appropriations reported an FY2004 Interior Appropriations bill (S. 1391; S.Rept. 108-89), with $2.24 billion for the National Fire Plan, $1.3 million (less than 0.1%) more than the Administrations request.

Abstract: The 2000 and 2002 fire seasons were, by most standards, among the worst in the past 50 years. Many argue that the threat of severe wildfires has grown in recent years because of unnaturally high fuel loads (e.g., dense undergrowth and dead trees), raising concerns about damage to property and homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) forests near or surrounding homes. Debates about fire control and protection, including funding and fuel treatments (e.g., thinning and prescribed burning), have focused on national forests and other federal lands, but nonfederal lands are also at risk.

Federal wildfire management funding rose dramatically after the severe 2000 fire season. In September 2000, President Clinton proposed a new National Fire Plan, requesting $1.8 billion to supplement the $1.1 billion originally requested for FY2001. Congress enacted most of this proposal and funding request, and support for expanded wildfire programs (excluding supplemental firefighting money) generally has continued.

On August 22, 2002, President Bush proposed the Healthy Forests Initiative. The initiative proposed significant changes to forest management laws designed, in part, to improve fire protection through fuel reduction. Several tools to reduce fuel loads currently exist prescribed burning, thinning, and salvage and other timber cutting. Stewardship goods-for-services contracting has been suggested as a way to finance additional fuel reduction. Proponents of fuel reduction have expressed frustration with alleged project delays from environmental analyses of, and public participation in, federal agency decisions (primarily under the National Environmental PolicyAct [NEPA]) and from administrative appeals of and judicial challenges to decisions. Critics, however, dispute these assertions and are concerned that speedier action could allow environmentally damaging timber harvesting, without adequate environmental review and public oversight.

Wildfire protection bills were introduced in the 107th Congress; however, none was enacted. Issues addressed in various proposals included priorities for action (typicallyemphasizing the WUI, municipal watersheds, and areas with insect and disease problems and blown-down trees); the necessity of NEPA environmental analysis and other environmental protection; public involvement and collaboration in, and administrative and judicial review of, fuel reduction projects; and the magnitude and duration of the program.

Much of the attention in the 108th Congress has been on theHealthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, H.R. 1904. This bill addresses many of the same issues addressed in the 107th Congresspriorities, NEPA analysis, and public involvement and reviewbut also includes titles allowing grants to use biomass, providing watershed forestry assistance, addressing insect infestations, and establishing private forest reserves. The bill passed the House on May 20, 2003, and the Senate Agriculture Committee reported it on July 31. Other bills also have been introduced that addressmany of the same issues in different ways. One provision, stewardship goodsfor- services contracting, was authorized for 10 years in the Consolidated Appropriations Resolution for FY2003 (P.L. 108-7). [read report]

* These CRS reports were produced by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress providing nonpartisan research reports to members of the House and Senate. The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) has made these reports available to the public at large, but the Congressional Research Service is not affiliated with the NCSE or the National Library for the Environment (NLE). This web site is not endorsed by or associated with the Congressional Research Service. The material contained in the CRS reports does not necessarily express the views of NCSE, its supporters, or sponsors. The information is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. NCSE disclaims all warranties, either express or implied, including the warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. In no event shall NCSE be liable for any damages.