WASHINGTON — With wildfire season raging in western states, Congress is embroiled in a battle over how best to fight the fires.
Many Republicans want to help prevent and fight wildfires by giving the agencies that manage the federal forests more money and greater ability to thin out the forests. Most Democrats, as well as environmental groups, say the bill would lead to more logging without first considering potential damage to the forests.
At the moment Utah, California and Arizona are dealing with more than 20 fires. The Weather Channel reports that the largest, in southern Utah, has forced more than 1,500 people to evacuate. The fire has burned more than 84 square miles and is 10 percent contained.
California, Idaho, Alaska, Oregon and Washington have all endured multiple "megafires" — those that burn more than 100,000 acres — in the past decade, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which coordinates wildfire response around the country.
These massive fires also consume a huge part of the federal Forest Service budget. The agency has asked Congress for help in addressing the problem of wildfire funding.
That's why lawmakers are considering the "Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017." It would give the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management access to funds to fight fires from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates responses to disasters like hurricanes, if their budgets for fighting wildfires run out.
Under the current system, the Forest Service often has to take money from the budgets of other programs to pay for wildfire costs, a practice known as "fire borrowing."
"(The bill) would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires through active forest management, addressing both the symptoms and the underlying cause of catastrophic fires in our national forests." Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., the bill's sponsor said.
But making what looks like a simple government maneuver is getting complicated.
The bill cleared its first hurdle, the House Natural Resources committee, this week on a 23-12 party line vote. The full House is expected to vote next month.
The bill moved quickly through the House the last time it was introduced in 2015. It passed by a 262-167 vote, with only 19 Democrats voting yes. It was not considered in the Senate.
Westerman has spoken with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, about introducing similar legislation. A spokesperson for Roberts did not immediately respond to request for comment.
But while the bill has drawn support from Minnesota Democrats Richard Nolan and Collin Peterson, none of the Democrats on the committee voted for the bill at its hearing Tuesday due to concern that the bill would allow logging without proper environmental review.
The bill would expedite the review process for certain forest management activities such as logging, controlled burns or salvaging wood.
It would also allow the Forest Service to waive environmental safeguards if it believes a project is unlikely to affect an endangered species. It also aims to prevent the review process from being tied up in court, by limiting the period of court injunctions and preventing payment for the plaintiffs' legal expenses.
"The legislation would remove much-needed accountability by limiting the public's ability to review federal agency actions, allowing the Forest Service to unilaterally waive the need for environmental review, while also potentially allowing up to 10,000-acre clear cuts without any public review," Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who also voted against the bill, said in a statement.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the committee said of the bill, "it's another precedent being set, slowly but surely, undercutting those benchmark laws and beginning a deregulation process without actually saying so."
Environmental groups blasted the bill.
In a statement, Susan Jane Brown of the Western Environmental Law Center called it a "wish list from the timber industry."
Rebecca Turner, senior director of programs and policy for American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization, said, "if it passes you'll have increased cutting of the national forests without the true understanding of the environmental impacts."
But, said Westerman's office, the bill has support from 46 groups including conservation, sporting and timber organizations and the Forest Service.
Ryan Saylor, a Westerman spokesman, said these projects are necessary for preserving the health of the forests.
"We are literally loving our forests to death," he said.