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What's on the wildfire table

Smoke on NYC skyline

Manhattan buildings shrouded in smoke last week. Photo: Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News

The Canada wildfire smoke that shrouded D.C. and other East Coast cities could set the table for forestry and wildfire legislation, particularly with the farm bill debate in full swing.

Why it matters: Scientists say these kinds of extreme events will become more common as temperatures warm.

  • Typically, climate-driven extreme weather doesn’t get much more than temporary attention from Congress. But many lawmakers are pointing at the smoke event to make a case for swift forest management action.
  • In the drought-stricken West, “it's not an abstract question for us,” Sen. Ron Wyden told Nick.

Driving the news: The wildfire smoke came at an opportune time, as morbid as that sounds, for lawmakers already prepping forest management bills.

  • House Natural Resources on Tuesday is marking up forestry and wildfire bills. They include two GOP priorities that would exempt certain thinning actions from NEPA and extend reinvestment powers related to Good Neighbor land management agreements to counties and tribes' forest management work.
  • This is happening as GOP members on the Ag Committee prep their version of the farm bill, in which some want to include a forestry title that addresses wildfires.
  • In the Senate, Westerners are already angling to include forest management funding and various drought resilience bills in their farm bill.

The intrigue: We're also closely watching Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s Save Our Sequoias Act.

  • The bipartisan bill, which already got a markup in Natural Resources, aims to expedite environmental reviews for thinning and resilience projects in giant sequoia groves.
  • It would create scientific programs and allow more private money to fund grove restoration projects.
  • Western lawmakers are also interested in legislation to help communities deal with wildfire fallout.
  • Rep. Jared Huffman will soon reintroduce the Wildfire Defense Act, which would help communities and local agencies develop evacuation and wildfire resilience plans, per spokesperson Mary Hurrell.

Our thought bubble: There are echoes here of the permitting debate. Lawmakers agree that something must be done but aren’t aligned on the details.

  • To wit: Sen. John Barrasso blamed lack of progress on thinning and prescribed burn projects on “regulatory red tape” and “harmful litigation” during an Energy and Natural Resources hearing Thursday.
  • Sen. Martin Heinrich, however, said there are bigger challenges to wildfire mitigation policy, namely funding.
  • “We need to be paying our firefighters more, we need to be doing more of these thinning projects,” he told Nick outside the Senate chamber. “And the Republicans, largely, say, ‘Why aren't you doing more of this?’ And then they defund the agencies.”

Flashback: Democrats put billions of wildfire-focused dollars in the IRA and bipartisan infrastructure law.

  • The IIJA provided wild-land firefighters with a temporary pay increase, but federal officials fear many will leave when it expires if Congress doesn't make it permanent. Heinrich said that’s something he’s heavily focused on.

What we’re watching: Whether money for firefighter pay and mitigation projects will be cut during appropriations season.

  • Agency spending is going to be constrained by the debt ceiling deal, and already, House Republicans are talking about funding below those caps.
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