DRAPER — Blaming the American West's "unprecedented" wildfire problem on decades of poor forest management and the reality of a hotter and drier climate, Sen. Mitt Romney on Friday unveiled a bill to create a new commission to tackle the issue.
Romney announced the proposed legislation, the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act of 2021, at a news conference near the Little Valley Trailhead, located in the rolling hills of Draper south of Salt Lake City, where neighborhoods of massive homes are nestled in the foothills.
Squinting in the scorching sun as Utah and the West continue to choke in an unprecedented drought fraught with wildfire risk, the Utah Republican senator said federal officials need to break free from their current ways of wildfire management, which he said clearly hasn't been working.
"Our state is dry, and we keep seeing bigger fires and conflagration that is daunting and dangerous," Romney said. "Lives have been lost, structures have been lost, businesses have gone out of business because of fire. And we keep doing things the way we've done them in the past, without recognizing that the world has changed."
Romney pointed to climate change and its impacts on Western states like Utah as a matter of fact.
"It's getting drier in the American West," Romney said. "Our state's getting drier. The fires are becoming bigger. The loss of life is more significant. And continuing to do the things the way we've done them in the past doesn't make a lot of sense."
So that's why Romney said he and bill sponsor Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, have worked with Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly on the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act to create a commission to mitigate and prevent wildfires that is made up not just federal officials, but also local officials and wildfire experts.
"It's an attempt to say, 'Well, frankly, we can learn from some others,'" Romney said, noting that officials in Australia formed a similar commission to "recognize that the climate is changing. It's getting hotter and drier. How do we protect our lands and our people in this new circumstance?"
For funding, Romney said, the bill will seek what may be millions out of roughly $42.5 billion proposed for "resiliency" in a nearly $1 trillion, five-year infrastructure spending plan he and a group of nine other bipartisan senators have agreed upon. It's unclear whether the Senate plan will garner enough support as it is less than President Joe Biden's $2.6 trillion proposal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled earlier this week it may run into trouble.
Romney noted he's no wildfire "expert," but he listed off possible solutions the commission could explore: Cutting red tape for controlled burns whose permits, he says, take too long to obtain; allowing more highly flammable dead wood to be removed from forests for commercial purposes; or funding more aircraft to assist firefighters.
While "everything runs into hurdles in Congress," Romney said he believes the legislation, sponsored by Curtis and co-sponsored by Kelly, has "a good shot" of passing.
"Look, we got people across the American West for whom this is a real issue," Romney said, pointing to the tragedies in California where thousands of homes have been lost to wildfires. "So whether you're Republican or Democrat, you know, this is an issue we've got to tackle."
Asked by a reporter if his party is starting to take climate change more seriously and if that means there's a better chance for bipartisan solutions to climate change, Romney said, "I think there's a recognition on both sides of the aisle that the planet is getting hotter and drier, particularly in the American West."
"We're in a drought in the American West, unlike anything I've seen during my lifetime," Romney said. "Some people argue about how much of this is caused by humans and how much is caused by natural cycles. I don't get into that argument. I hope it's caused by humans. Because if it's not caused by humans, there's nothing we can do about it."
Asked if he believes Utah should ban fireworks amid the drought and wildfire risk, Romney deferred to Gov. Spencer Cox, who said Thursday he wants to ban them but doesn't have the power under Utah law.
"l'll leave that up to the governor as to what he thinks is the right thing to do," Romney said, adding that cities and towns can also "make their own decisions in that regard."
However, Romney also urged Utahns to be "pretty darn careful" to reduce the risk of wildfires.
Cox in a prepared statement thanked Romney, Kelly and Curtis for their work on the bill, also pointing to Utah's "unprecedented wildfire and drought conditions."
"There is no better time than now to work together to improve policy and focus on practices that can make a difference for our future, including better prevention, mitigation, management and rehabilitation," Cox said.
Draper Mayor Troy Walker, who wore a shirt supporting the Draper City Fire Department, called Romney's bill "long overdue and a much-needed plan."
"It's a commonsense approach, which would elevate local leaders and make sure they have a seat at the table with the federal partners to assess and make recommendations on wildland fire mitigation and land maintenance in order to prevent future wildland fires from becoming catastrophic disasters," Walker said.
Jamie Barnes, acting director of Utah's Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, called the wildfire dangers from the drought "real and unprecedented" in Utah. Over 380 fires have already charred more than 40,000 acres across the state, she said.
"Fire sense is more important than ever before, with 85% of these fires being human-caused," Barnes said. "Drought is real, and it's concerning. Lakes and rivers are drawing to historical lows, which makes challenging decisions on all levels."
The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act of 2021, would, according to a summary from Romney's office:
- Establish a commission of federal officials and other stakeholders, including from city and county levels, to study and recommend fire prevention "mitigation, management and rehabilitation policies for forests and grasslands."
- Be jointly managed by the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture and the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
- Have 28 commission members, including three federal co-chairs, eight federal members, and 17 nonfederal members.
- Give preference to nonfederal stakeholders from a state that has had at least one FEMA Fire Management Assistance declaration or a major disaster declaration for a fire in at least four of the last five years.
- Recommend policies to improve forest management tactics, federal spending and budgeting for wildfires, as well as long-term management and land maintenance strategies.
- Report to Congress policy recommendations on short- and long-term wildfire prevention, mitigation, suppression, management and rehabilitation to combat future wildfires from becoming "catastrophic disasters."