Tuesday’s House Resources Committee Hearing on Various Wildfire and Other Bills

A kind TSW reader sent me a Marc Heller story from E&E News. Here’s a link to the hearing on last Tuesday, May 23, 2023.

Troy Heithecker is a Forest Service Deputy Chief who testified in a hearing Tuesday. I didn’t much like the headline “GOP call for total fire suppression” since the bill says, according to the article:

A bill from Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) — H.R. 934 — would require the agency to put out every reported fire within 24 hours in forests in drought conditions, at high risk of wildfire or when the National Interagency Fire Center has set the highest level for national preparedness.

That doesn’t seem total to me. Not that I support the bill either, FWIW. Hopefully if the fire had a high chance of getting away due to conditions, or there were few resources available, the FS would do that without legislation. Of course it’s hard to predict the future. I’d see this as signalling to “be more careful, especially in my District.”

I know why the FS says this.. but people want to hear “we’ll be more careful” not “because you experienced it, it’s really not a problem because look at the national percentages. Tell that to the New Mexicans about prescribed fire.

But Heithecker said the agency already puts out as many as 98 percent of the wildfires reported within 24 hours. He estimates that perhaps 1 percent are monitored or allowed to burn for resource benefit, such as allowing naturally occurring fire to thin forests that have evolved with it for centuries.

Anyway, enough about wildfire.. what about NEPA?

McClintock proposed another bill, H.R. 188, to extend the use of 10,000-acre categorical exclusions from the National Environmental Policy Act that have been in place in the Sierra Nevada since the Obama administration.
The Forest Service supports much of that proposal, Heithecker said, while looking to work on the details.
While categorical exclusions from NEPA often draw criticism from environmental groups, Heithecker defended them as “just another category of NEPA” that allows the Forest Service to move faster on projects that don’t pose a significant environmental risk.
As many as 85 percent of the NEPA-related decisions the Forest Service makes are done through categorical exclusions, he said, and many of the decisions involve tracts of land bigger than 10,000 acres.
“Having tools to help us do that work at scale faster is a benefit to us,” he said.
Even with the expedited reviews, Heithecker said, projects “have to comply with all of those environmental laws.”

I think it’s unclear that re-upping outfitter-guide special use permits, or permitting bike races, with a CE, should be in the same “85% of decisions” box as vegetation treatments. When people testify about fuel treatments, why not use the CE numbers for.. fuel treatments? I am still interested in the CEs currently available and how often they are used for fuel projects compared to EAs and EISs, and the relative amounts of acreage involved. Chelsea Pennick looked at that in Idaho, as I recall, when she studied collaboration but what do we know about the Sierra? Because, as we have seen, people on the Tahoe are successfully using EAs for 2K acre projects. Maybe CEs are not the answer, after all Lake Tahoe has its own CE. It would be interesting to talk to NEPA practitioners in the Sierra about this. Any of you out there, please email me.

If any folks have other observations on the hearing, please comment.

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