Wildfire Protection in the 108th Congress

Publication Date: November 2004

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Environment



Many argue that the threat of severe wildfires has grown in recent years because of unnaturally high fuel loads (e.g., dense undergrowth and dead trees), raising concerns about damage to property and homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) — forests near or surrounding homes. Debates about fire control and protection, including funding and fuel treatments (e.g., thinning and prescribed burning), have focused on national forests and other federal lands, but nonfederal lands are also at risk.

Federal wildfire management funding rose dramatically after the severe 2000 fire season. In September 2000, President Clinton proposed a new National Fire Plan, requesting $1.8 billion to supplement the $1.1 billion originally requested for FY2001. Congress enacted most of this proposal and funding request, and support for expanded wildfire programs (excluding supplemental firefighting money) generally has continued.

On August 22, 2002, President Bush proposed the Healthy Forests Initiative. The initiative proposed changes to forest management laws, in part, to improve fire protection through fuel reduction. Several tools can reduce fuel loads — prescribed burning, thinning, and salvage and other timber cutting. Proponents of fuel reduction have expressed frustration with alleged project delays from environmental analyses of, and public participation in, federal agency decisions (primarily under the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA]) and from administrative appeals and judicial reviews of decisions. Critics dispute these assertions and are concerned that speedier action could allow environmentally damaging timber harvesting, without adequate environmental review and public oversight.

Wildfire protection bills were introduced in the 107th Congress, but none was enacted. Issues addressed in various proposals included priorities for action (typically emphasizing the WUI, municipal watersheds, and areas with insect and disease problems and blown-down trees); the necessity of NEPA environmental analysis and other environmental protection; public involvement and collaboration in, and administrative and judicial review of, fuel reduction projects; and the magnitude and duration of the program.

Much of the attention in the 108th Congress was on the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, H.R. 1904. This bill addressed many issues treated in the President’s Initiative — priorities, NEPA analysis, and public involvement and review — but also included titles allowing grants to use biomass, providing watershed forestry assistance, addressing insect infestations, and establishing private forest reserves. The bill passed the House on May 20, 2003, the Senate on October 30, and was signed into law (P.L. 108-148) on December 3, 2003.