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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to consider legislation this week sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs aimed at making it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to thin federal forests and prevent wildfires.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, announced Thursday that Westerman's bill, The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, would be included in a package of bills, along with one that would make major wildfires on federal lands eligible for federal disaster funding.

This is the first bill Westerman has sponsored to reach the House floor.

"It's good legislation and it's something that's needed and it's something that people on both sides of the aisle can agree on," the first-term Republican said. "So I'm excited about the opportunity to get it on the House floor and hopefully get it passed off and hopefully get some momentum in the Senate."

He said considering the emergency declaration legislation at the same time should be helpful to gathering support for his bill. Currently, the U.S. Forest Service uses its operating budget to fight catastrophic fires, leaving less money for forest management and fire prevention.

"You may have a bad fire season one year, and not as much of a fire season the next year," he said. "This will help a lot to help the forest service to carry on the normal reforestation and management practices that they should be doing with their budget."

Westerman has a master's degree in forestry from Yale University and worked as an engineer and forester for 22 years.

His bill would streamline environmental analyses, discourage litigation and limit the use of preliminary injunctions to make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to execute management plans that include removing trees or brush, or selectively burning some areas to generate new growth.

In some instances, officials would be able to remove insect-infested, diseased or dead trees without performing the full environmental study currently mandated by federal law.

Environmental groups opposing the bill say they are worried it would limit citizens' ability to challenge Forest Service activities by making it prohibitively expensive to sue the government to stop the Forest Service from acting.

The bill would require people suing the government to post a bond for the service's anticipated court costs and fees. If the government lost, the bond would be returned, but if the suing party didn't win every part of the case, the government would keep as much of the bond as necessary to pay its court costs.

The bill also prohibits judges from issuing restraining orders or preliminary injunctions to stop salvage or reforestation efforts in a large area affected by a natural disaster. In other situations when an injunction is allowed by law, the court would have to consider the short- and long-term effects of whether the agency performs the action.

In a statement, Bishop said he expects bipartisan support for the package in the House and Senate.

"My colleagues on both sides of the aisle agree that current efforts to combat the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires are failing our communities," he said. "This package charts a new course."

Metro on 07/06/2015

Print Headline: Forestry bill to go to House

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