US House passes Neguse-backed wildfire and drought bill that covers firefighter pay, forest health and recovery dollars

With wildfires and drought increasingly becoming life issues for Colorado and neighboring states, the House took action on Friday, passing a package of nearly 50 bills that Rep. Joe Neguse said would “meets the moment for the West”.

Neguse is a major sponsor of the package, known as the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act, as well as the author of some of its specific provisions. It passed the House on a near-line party vote of 218-199.

“We need to apply a ‘whole of government’ approach to recovery — creating and funding multiple programs that support community rebuilding and build environmental resilience,” Neguse said at a press conference ahead of the vote. He said the bill’s provisions would do that, while improving working conditions for federal wildland firefighters.

Among the provisions of the bill are millions of dollars to help the Colorado River, Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs, the establishment of centers to focus on best practices in prescribed burning so that these measures potentially destructive mitigation are properly applied, an increase in base compensation for wildland firefighters, and measures to improve forest health, such as the removal of undergrowth and dead trees.

Neguse also included several of his own bills in the package, such as the Wildfire Recovery Act, which would help more local communities get the resources needed to recover from wildfires by increasing the federal cost share for grants. fire management assistance above 75%, and the Land Restoration and Resilience Act, which would create a community fund for resilience and restoration.

Behind the package are powerful House leaders, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. “It is incumbent on all of us in the United States of America to make sure that we cope with the fires and the droughts that are happening,” he said, highlighting the water crisis around the Colorado River, where reservoirs have dropped to critical levels. “It’s the proximity of the emergency. This rapidly growing problem demands quick action. This bill, the Wildlife Response and Drought Resiliency Act, is a key part of that response.

The largely partisan vote, however, reflects Republican concerns about how the package came together. Elements of the bill did not go through the regular committee process and Democratic leaders did not allow full debate on the amendments or, Republicans complain, did not include their suggestions.

While some GOP measures are included in the package and Republicans agree something needs to be done now, they said this bill would actually create ways to delay solutions, such as new wilderness designations. that would prevent the mechanical thinning of forests.

“Instead of streamlining environmental regulations and resolving frivolous litigation, which delay vital forest management projects across the country, this bill would add mountains of new red tape to our federal agencies that would completely interrupt their processing flow. already frosty,” said Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, who led the debate for Republicans.

There was also disagreement over the bill’s impact on firefighter compensation. Republicans argued that the bill would end up cutting firefighter pay.

Michelle Hart supports the wildland firefighter compensation section of the package. Her husband Tim was a paratrooper who died in 2021 fighting a fire in New Mexico. Neguse and GOP Rep. Liz Cheney named a wildland firefighter bill after him.

As for the compensation element, she said it was “setting a minimum standard above $20 an hour, which still seems very low for the risk they are taking.”

“It would set the starting salary higher than what the starting salary is [now]she explained, noting that her husband was making more money. “So it’s not about saying that all firefighters have to be at this level, it’s about setting a floor so it can’t be below. And that’s an increase from the floor.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Act provided additional funds for wildland firefighters, but this bill goes beyond that until that money runs out. Without it, Hart fears the agencies will revert to their previous, lower pay levels.

While the Biden administration has come out in favor of the package, Neguse acknowledged that the bill would run into hurdles in the Senate. Some of the bill’s measures have Senate sponsors, but not all.

Still, Neguse said it was essential for the House to get the debate started.

“It was important for us to define what wildfire response and drought resilience efforts could and should look like in terms of responding to the scale of the crisis facing the American West,” did he declare.

Even if this package stalls in the Senate, Neguse and other Democrats pointed out that there are several other avenues through which major elements of the package could pass, from the government’s budget bill to a government lands bill. long-awaited Senate.

The Congressional Budget Office did not flag the bill, but the New Mexico congresswoman

Teresa Leger Fernández noted that states and the federal government are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars fighting wildfires.

“So the cost of not doing it is so much higher,” she said. “So investing in this bill saves us money in the long run.”

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