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House approves omnibus bill in response to Western wildfires and drought

Moose Creek fire crews on the job near Salmon, Idaho.
Photo courtesy Mike McMillan
Moose Creek fire crews on the job near Salmon, Idaho.

News brief 

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a massive wildfire and drought response bill last week mostly along party lines. The legislation now moves to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.

The package comprises more than 40 previously introduced bills. It would authorize $500 million for forest management projects, including prescribed fire, and it would pump another $500 million into the Interior Department's efforts to "reduce the near-term likelihood of Lake Mead and Lake Powell declining critically low water elevations."

The legislation also aims to improve tribal access to clean water, and it would extend new federal firefighter pay standards, which set a minimum of $20 an hour.

Those salaries were approved temporarily through last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, but without permanent action from Congress, the pay bump would expire in 2023. The firefighter provisions came from the “Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act,” named after a Wyoming smokejumper who passed away from injuries sustained while fighting a blaze in New Mexico.

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) is a chief sponsor of the bill, called the "Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act." He said during floor debate on Friday that more money needs to be spent to confront the effects climate change in the West.

“Countless constituents come to us grieving the loss of their homes but also seeking the resources that they deserve from the federal government,” Neguse said. “We have a duty to provide our constituents with the support that they need to rebuild and to recover.”

The final bill passed 218-190 with just one Republican voting in favor of it. Opponents argue that the measures won’t deliver what they promise, and that Democrats rushed the bill while ignoring solutions offered by politicians from across the aisle.

Regarding firefighter pay, Republicans also said that salary increases will actually result in layoffs if the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t get more money from Congress. That debate's expected to heat up as another season of extreme wildfires takes its toll.

As the legislation moves to the Senate, Neguse acknowledged his bill faces a tough road to ultimate passage. He said in a press conference last week that he’s looking for either Joe Manchin (D-W.V) or Catherine Cortez Masto (D-N.M.) to introduce it.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.

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