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House OKs massive drought, wildfire response package – eenews.net

The House approved a package of bills Friday to raise wildland firefighters salaries, improve wildfire preparedness and conserve water in drought-stricken Western states, over Republican objections that the measure won’t delive…….

The House approved a package of bills Friday to raise wildland firefighters salaries, improve wildfire preparedness and conserve water in drought-stricken Western states, over Republican objections that the measure won’t deliver what’s promised.

Lawmakers approved the legislation largely along party lines, 218-199.

Among other provisions, the package — comprising more than 40 previously introduced bills — would raise federal firefighter salaries to at least $20 per hour, bringing them closer to parity with state-level firefighters, and provide benefits such as mental health assistance.

The firefighter provisions came from the “Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act,” H.R. 5631.

The package would also inject $500 million into efforts by the Interior Department to keep both Lake Mead and Lake Powell from “declining to critically low water elevations.”

The legislation, called the “Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act,” would approve a 10-year wildfire strategy at the Forest Service, although Democrats and Republicans disagreed over whether it would cancel out a decadelong plan the agency adopted earlier this year.

The bill would provide $500 million for forest management projects, such as removing dead wood and other potential wildfire fuel, and the Agriculture Department would be directed to conduct 20 large forest restoration projects over five years.

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), the bill’s chief sponsor, said it “meets the moment” for Western states grappling with growing wildfire.

GOP opposition

House Natural Resources ranking member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) during floor debate last week. | U.S. House

Republicans, led by Natural Resources ranking member Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, said it won’t prevent wildfires and could result in firefighter layoffs at the Forest Service if congressional appropriators don’t approve enough money to implement new mandates.

“This so-called raise is an empty promise,” Westerman said, citing Forest Service estimates that 610 firefighter positions could be lost if Congress doesn’t provide additional appropriations to cover pay raises.

That issue also came up in the Forest Service’s written responses to questions from a Natural Resources hearing in October 2021, which Westerman’s office provided to E&E News this week.

“The Forest Service acknowledges that, if appropriations remain flat, the Agency will be forced to make some necessary trade-offs,” the document said, adding that 470 positions could be lost in the first year a raise takes effect. Officials would first consider other alternatives, said the document.

Neguse cast the debate over raises from a different angle. Without a bill authorizing a permanent raise, he said, the temporary bump Congress approved for this year will expire in 2023, making for an automatic pay cut.

Most House Republicans opposed the infrastructure …….

Source: https://www.eenews.net/articles/house-oks-massive-drought-wildfire-response-package/

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