WASHINGTON — House Republicans are targeting environmental rules to allow faster approval for tree cutting in national forests in response to the deadly wildfires in California.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said lawmakers will vote next week on a bill to loosen environmental regulations for forest-thinning projects on federal lands. The GOP argues the actions will reduce the risk of fire.
The Republican bill "includes reforms to keep our forests healthy and less susceptible to the types of fires that ravaged our state this month," McCarthy said Thursday.
California has declared a public health emergency in the northern part of the state, where fires that began Oct. 8 have killed at least 42 people, making them the deadliest series of wildfires in state history. Authorities have warned residents returning to the ruins of their homes to beware of possible hazardous residues in the ashes, and required them to sign forms acknowledging the danger.
The GOP bill is one of at least three being considered in Congress to address wildfires. Republicans and the timber industry have long complained about environmental rules that make it difficult to cut down trees to reduce fire risk. Plans to harvest trees on federal lands can take years to win approval.
Democrats and environmental groups decry GOP policies they say would bypass important environmental laws to clear-cut vast swaths of national forests, harming wildlife and the environment.
Democrats also complain that Republican proposals don't acknowledge or address root causes for increasingly severe wildfire seasons, such as climate change or increased development near forest lands.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Congress needs to act.
"We must ask ourselves: What kind of future are we leaving for the next generation when we have failed to conserve federal forests that overwhelm the sky with thick smoke and ash when they burn?" asked Barrasso, chief sponsor of the Senate GOP bill and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., sponsor of the House bill, said fires devastating communities across California, Montana and other western states show "how years of unmanaged federal forests have wreaked havoc on our environment, polluting our air and water and destroying thousands of acres of wildlife habitat."
The flurry of legislation comes as the Forest Service has spent a record $2.4 billion battling forest fires in one of the nation's worst fire seasons. Wildfires have burned nearly 9 million acres across the country, with much of the devastation in California, Oregon and Montana.
As of Thursday, six large fires were still burning in the West, including four in California.
The other measures in Congress include a bipartisan Senate bill that would authorize more than $100 million to help at-risk communities prevent wildfires and create a pilot program to cut down trees in the most fire-prone areas. The bill also calls for detailed reviews of any wildfire that burns over 100,000 acres.
Barrasso's bill would waive environmental reviews for projects up to 6,000 acres and overturn a federal court decision that forced more consultation between the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service on forest management projects.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the House GOP bill ignores climate change and does little more than waive existing laws.
"Denying science and waiving the National Environmental Policy Act is the Republican prescription for everything," said Grijalva, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, called the GOP bill "the only solution on the table to bend the cost curve of fire suppression and prevent wildfires from becoming uncontrollable, life-threatening calamities."