WASHINGTON — A key congressional panel passed legislation Wednesday that would give state governors more power to prevent wildfires on federal lands.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved Rep. Scott Tipton’s bill to allow governors to name drought-stricken and bark-beetle infested patches of land as “high-risk areas.”
The Cortez Republican said the legislation could have helped prevent the fire at the Pike National Forest, which burned as a result of the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire outside Colorado Springs this summer.
“This bill aims to restore forests to health,” Tipton said Wednesday of the Healthy Forest Management Act of 2012 (H.R. 6089).
“This addresses forest fires before they happen by removing hazardous undergrowth,” Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican said at the hearing.
With the wildfires in the western states and lack of rain in the country’s interior this summer, lawmakers from both parties have sought to address the bark-beetle infestation and drought. Colorado’s two Democratic senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, in June introduced legislation to increase the amount of funding available to kill bark beetles.
Tipton’s legislation passed the House Resources Committee on a largely party-line vote. One Democrat, Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma, joined 27 Republicans in approving the bill, which advances to the House of Representatives.
At the hearing, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) repeated Democrats’ charge from a subcommittee hearing last month that the bill would limit public input. Tipton denied the claim. Grijalva is “totally wrong about that,” he said. “The public can provide input.”
The bill stipulates that a governor shall consult with affected states, county officials, and Indian tribes. It does not specify that a governor is required to get their approval, however.
Grijalva sought to attach an amendment to Tipton’s bill that would have given federal health benefits to part-time temporary seasonal employees who implement energy hazardous fuels reduction, but the amendment was defeated.
Democrat Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts – one of the ten states without a National Forest – attempted to attach an amendment to Tipton’s bill that would have changed the funding source for the Healthy Forests Reserve Program, a George W. Bush-era program that gives incentives to private landowners to seek environment-friendly goals such as plant and animal biodiversity. His provision also failed in committee.
With Congress scheduled to begin its five-week summer recess this Friday, Tipton said he expects the House to vote on and approve his bill in September.
He suggested the Senate is unlikely to approve the legislation, but noted that a House-Senate conference committee is likely to consider his bill later this year.