NACD Government Affairs update on emergency wildfire legislation

By Mary Scott

The 2020 wildfire season has already inflicted severe economic, health and natural resources challenges across the country.

More than 8,100 wildfires have been recorded since the beginning of the year in California alone, with over 4 million acres destroyed, more than any previous year on record. More than 7,000 structures have been destroyed as a result of these wildfires. Although these statistics only cover one state, communities across the West, including those in Oregon, Washington and Montana, have also been devastated by wildfires this year, where residents have been impacted by property loss and unhealthy smoke levels.

Catastrophic wildfires have gained attention from the media, and while not uncommon, the narrative has shifted from primarily reporting the devastation to including the importance of forestry and wildfire management. Local and national news outlets have been sharing the stories of natural resource managers and the need for effective, active stewardship.

This legislation will provide natural resource managers with the common sense tools they need to succeed, […] allowing them to make the best local determinations for managing the landscape to prevent future wildfires.

Dialogue on good management is often lacking, yet it’s critical to bring awareness to the challenges residents are faced with on the ground. A local news station in Colorado interviewed natural resource experts to discuss the importance of active management, including removing fine fuels and using prescribed burns. The Wall Street Journal reported on a forestry management project intended to create fuel breaks. Unfortunately, the project was delayed, and a wildfire from this season destroyed the project area. It’s a story that echoes the common challenges natural resource managers face across the country, where they are often met by hold-ups, fear of litigation and additional red tape that inhibits sensible management.

NACD has long advocated for responsible management of our nation’s forests through various programs at the U.S. Forest Service and through responsible updates to federal rules such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Thankfully, Congress has been actively participating in the discussion as well. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives recently held hearings on the wildfires plaguing the Western states, where they reviewed several bills that would help address the issue.

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forestry and Mining convened to review a number of bills. On the agenda was the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020 (S. 4431) introduced by Senators Daines (R-MT) and Feinstein (D-CA). In support of the bill, NACD sent a letter to Congress urging to move the bill for consideration by the full Senate. S. 4431 focuses on reducing wildfire risk by establishing landscape management pilot projects and categorical exclusions for fuel breaks, as well as reversing the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center vs. U.S. Forest Service decision.

“This legislation will provide natural resource managers with the common sense tools they need to succeed, […] allowing them to make the best local determinations for managing the landscape to prevent future wildfires,” NACD President Tim Palmer stated in a quote submitted in support of the bill.

On Thursday, Sept. 24, the House Agriculture Committee met on the current status of the wildfires, recovery and future management. The discussion included ensuring natural resource managers are equipped with an array of management tools, such as grazing and prescribed fire. Congressman LaMalfa (R-CA) raised the point that preventive measures, such as prescribed fires, were a missed opportunity this year, as well as in past years. Air quality concerns can prohibit prescribed burns, yet the smoke from catastrophic wildfires is no different than smoke from prescribed fire. Allowing multiple options for fuels reduction is a key part of on-the-ground management. Earlier this year, NACD provided comments to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s Proposed Revisions of Grazing Regulations for Public Lands, specifically outlining fuels reduction as a grazing benefit.

Disaster Relief Resources:

While the national dialogue is much needed, local communities have suffered greatly, and will continue to as they begin to recover. We must not move forward without acknowledging what communities out West have lost. As we turn attention to rebuilding, several resources are available for conservation districts that may be in the position to help:

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) both offer disaster relief programs conservation districts may be interested in. USDA’s Disaster Resource Center provides information on disaster preparation, recovery and USDA assistance. Additionally, USDA’s Wildland Fire page offers updated resources.

  • Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP): Offered by NRCS, EWP provides funding to address “long-lasting damages to infrastructure and to the land.” EWP recovery examples include repairing conservation practices, levees and structures. Eligible project sponsors include local entities of government, including conservation districts. Conservation districts may contact their state’s EWP program manager.

Conservation districts interested in FEMA grant programs should contact their State Hazard Mitigation Officer (SHMO) for more information. For examples of mitigation projects, visit FEMA’s Mitigation Action Portfolio and new publication, Building Community Resilience with Nature-Based Solutions: A Guide for Local Communities.

  • Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP): Offered by FEMA after a presidentially-declared disaster, HMGP provides grant funding to state, local, tribal and territorial governments so they can rebuild in a way that reduces or mitigates future disaster losses in their communities. Post-fire assistance is available to help communities implement hazard mitigation measures after wildfire disasters.

Though not disaster relief assistance, the NFPA Firewise Program is a community program that provides a platform for local communities to organize and take action to help keep homes and communities safe.

Latest News

Calendar of Events

Find your Local District

Accessibility Toolbar