WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House passed a bill Thursday designed to improve the health of national forests by scaling back the environmental reviews that go into some timbering projects and discouraging lawsuits that delay projects.
The goal is to speed up timber harvests and underbrush removal that the U.S. Forest Service deems necessary to improve the health of national forests, which are taking a hit from drought, density and infestation. Altogether, up to 40 percent of the entire national forest system is in need of treatment to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire and disease.
The bill meets the Obama administration partway when it comes to treating some wildfires like other federal disasters when it comes to tapping federal funds, but doesn't go as far as the administration wanted and subsequently generated White House opposition.
As a result, it's unclear what progress the bill will make after clearing the House by a vote of 262-167.
House Republicans have long sought more aggressive tree removal from national forest lands. Past efforts required the government to increase the amount of timber offered for sale. This time, the focus was on reducing regulatory hurdles and lawsuits. Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California said the nation's forests have been consigned to a policy of benign neglect and are now dangerously overgrown.
'Excess timber comes out of the forest one way or the other,' McClintock said. 'It's either carried out or burned out.'
Nineteen Democratic lawmakers, mostly from rural areas, supported the bill.
One of their primary arguments from opponents was that exempting a wide range of forest lands from certain types of environmental reviews will make the forests, as Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts put it, 'much more vulnerable to degradation and damage.'
Environmental groups largely opposed the bill. 'Dramatically increasing logging based upon little to no environmental analysis is like racing down the highway with your windshield painted black. You know that the outcome will not be good,' said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.
Democrats were particularly critical of a provision requiring that groups suing to stop certain projects also be required to buy a surety bond. The bond would reimburse the federal government for expenses in the event the plaintiffs lose. An amendment to strip that provision was defeated largely along party lines. Rep. Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, opposed the amendment.
'The verdict is in. The draconian environmental policies and litigation assaults of the past 30 years have failed our forests,' said Bishop, R-Utah.
In the days leading up to the vote, House Republicans added language designed to treat wildfires like other federal disasters, a longstanding priority of the Obama administration. Under the House bill, federal agencies tap into a disaster fund after they've exhausted that year's firefighting budget, and the extra money could only be used for putting out fires. The move was designed so agencies dedicating more and more resources to firefighting would no longer have to transfer money from the very programs that prevent fires in the first place.
While the Obama administration proposed a similar concept, there were also key differences that prompted the White House to issue a statement opposing the bill. The statement said the bill 'falls short of fixing the fire budget problem and contains other provisions that will undermine collaborative forest restoration, environmental safeguards and public participation.'