Fires continue to burn in many parts of the west and officials are bracing for a long, grueling and even deadlier fire season than they’re used to. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso chairs the Environment Committee where he oversees the nation’s forests.
“We’ve had a lot of moisture early which leads to significant growth so it’s always a concern, we wanna make sure the funding is there but we also have legislation for healthy forests to be able to do some of the things you need to do to lower the risk of wildfires and we’re continuing to work on that.”
Barrasso said he’s glad lawmakers have increased funding for fighting fires, but he added that more is needed.
“There continues to be discussions on the best way, you know, with last year’s legislation, we now have the funding to deal with the fires but we haven’t gone as far as I would like to do with some the conservation efforts that we could do to clear out some of the brush and the debris that makes the fire, if it starts, harder to fight and more likely to spread.”
Barrasso blames environmentalists for fighting to keep forests untouched.
“Well, I’ve always supported this idea of a healthy forest initiative as a means to prevent forest fires as well as to prevent a rapid spread. There’s just so much fuel lying there that if a fire starts, lightning strike, carelessness on behalf of a camper, no matter what the cause, you wanna be able to get it done, get it out as quickly as you can and the best way to do that is to have a healthier forest and, as opposed to all this pent-up, built up fuel.”
In the House, Republicans have passed legislation making it easier to clear forest brush but the bill hasn’t gone anywhere in the Senate. Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney sits on the Natural Resources Committee which oversees forests in the House.
“I think ultimately, and I do think the forest service is headed in a better direction but ultimately we’ve gotta get management right.”
But Democrats hated the GOP passed reforms in the House. Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva says the GOP merely wants to help private businesses, not care for forest health.
"...But this bill is not about forest health, or wildfire mitigation, it's about increasing the number of trees removed from our forests. Republicans would rather scare us into weakening environmental safeguards than work on a possible bipartisan solution to wildfire management."
California Democrat Jared Huffman is another who believes that the GOP efforts are misguided.
"So let's call this bill what it is, it is an environmental wrecking ball that weakens standards and protections, limits public participation in the review of federal agency actions, and won't make our forests any healthier or safer."
But Cheney says these Democrats have their head in the sand.
“I think there’s no question but when you start talking about the situation we’re finding with respect to our forests, it is really hard for anybody to argue against the conditions that we find right now and the conditions are clearly a result of bad federal management. Devastating federal management.”
Cheney maintains that the federal government has hurt the nation’s forests and it’s time for federal officials to get out of the way and allow locals to take care of their own forests.
“Situations where we’ve had such massive beetle kill, then you have blowdown, but you can’t get in to clear out the blowdown because of the roadless rule. So federal policies have clearly contributed to really a devastation of a hugely important natural resource."
It’s an election year so the schedule is tight, but western lawmakers are renewing calls to overhaul the nation’s forest rules and they want action sooner than later.