Politics & Government

Congress rebuffs Trump wildfire demands, leaves logging proposals out of farm bill

The Trump administration spent months very publicly lobbying Congress for more power to conduct logging projects on national forests, something President Donald Trump and leading cabinet officials argued would help combat the catastrophic wildfires that killed more than 80 people in California this fall.

They failed.

On Tuesday, lawmakers rolled out the final text of the 2018 farm bill, a compromise between House and Senate negotiators. It does not include any of the controversial “categorical exclusions” to environmental review laws for logging projects that the administration and House Republicans had sought.

But the legislation does include new proposals that conservationists and forestry experts hope will help the federal government and states pursue projects across the West to reduce the risk of out-of-control blazes.

There is “productive policy in there,” said Peter Nelson, Director of Federal Lands Program at Defenders of Wildlife. Nelson pointed in particular to collaborative forest management programs between the federal government, states and private landowners that the bill reauthorizes and, in some cases, expands.

That’s critical because of the patchwork of ownership in forests across the West. In California, for example, the federal government controls over half of forest land, through a mix of agencies that includes the Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation and National Park Service. Private landowners, Native American tribes and companies own another 40 percent of forest land, while state and local agencies oversee just 3 percent.

Wildfires, however, do not observe such boundaries.

The Camp Fire, the deadliest blaze in the state’s history, began in early November in the Plumas National Forest, northwest of Lake Tahoe. It burned through the foothill town of Paradise, primarily consuming private land and killing 85 people.

The 2018 farm bill, which Congress is prepared to pass later this week, places a particular focus on that nexus where national forest meets increasingly populated private and state land, also known as the “wildland urban interface.”

The legislation will expand the Good Neighbor Authority, a program that has promoted collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and state governments as they try to clear the dead trees and overgrown forests that are particularly prone to fire.

According to Thom Porter, chief of strategic planning at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the state has five Good Neighbor Authority agreements in place with the U.S Forest Service, which have allowed the department to do forest management work on federal land that abuts state land.

The federal government also provides funding to help with the projects. The agreements “are really helpful in the collaborative works,” said Porter. “We will continue to expand those as opportunities present themselves.”

The farm bill extends the program to Native American tribes and counties, as well.

It establishes a new $20 million-per-year grant program for forest restoration on state and private land. To be eligible for the grant, proposals must include a plan “to reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires.”

The legislation also paves the way for the creation of a privately funded pilot program to encourage utility companies to clear brush and trees national forest land near power lines. That could be a small but significant development for California, where gas and electric provider PG&E has been blamed for igniting dozens of blazes in the last year. Several Camp Fire survivors have also filed a lawsuit alleging a PG&E power line failure started the Camp Fire.

Porter cautions that “the utility issue is a particularly complex one.” Doing more forest management work, such as brush clearing and tree removal, is just “one of the pieces of fixing the problem or reducing the risk,” he said.

Absent from the legislation are the most controversial proposals included in the House version of the farm bill, passed in the summer. Environmentalists were particularly alarmed by language that would exempt certain logging and forest thinning projects of up to 6,000 acres from strict environmental review standards, under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. Leading Democrats in the House and Senate were also resolutely opposed to them.

But that didn’t stop the president, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue from continuing to advocate for the regulatory rollbacks this fall via Tweets, at press conferences, in op-eds, and during their visits to California communities ravaged by fire.

“For too long, our forest management efforts have been thwarted by lawsuits from misguided, extreme environmentalists,” Zinke and Perdue wrote in a Sept. 4 op-ed in the Sacramento Bee.

The pressure campaign picked up in November as the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire tore through Northern and Southern California simultaneously, shocking residents with their speed and ferocity. “With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!” Trump tweeted on Nov. 11, as the Camp Fire raged in Butte County.

That upped the ante on House Republican negotiators, who pushed hard to keep the logging provisions in the legislation in recent weeks, despite losing much of their leverage after the election. If Congress failed to pass the bill before year-end, lawmakers would have to start from scratch in 2019. And with Democrats poised to take back the House majority, Republicans would have less influence over the negotiations than they do now.

Republicans won a few concessions in the bill. Brett Hartl, director of government affairs at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, pointed out that the legislation extends authorities under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, allowing logging in areas of insect infestations “with little to zero public input or participation” thanks to an exemption from environmental review laws.

GOP advocates of the measure argued that expanding that provision to reduce “hazardous fuels” in the forests like dead trees and brush will help reduce the fire threat in the West.

Overall, however, Hartl and other environmental advocates were pleased that Congress rejected most of the “horrendous” forestry policies pushed by House Republicans and the White House. They would have “really inflamed tensions in the West and elsewhere if they were adopted into law,” said Nelson. And their failure is “an important reflection of where the consensus is on forest management.”

“It’s time to move past that [debate], in my opinion,” Nelson continued. The final language in the farm bill “is a sign of us doing that.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.