Romney Leads Senate Hearing About Modernizing Federal Wildfire Policies

Highlights Utah’s mitigation and response efforts, previews his forthcoming legislation with Senator Kelly

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) today helped lead a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) hearing focused on preventing, managing, and responding to wildfires in the United States. At the hearing, Senator Romney stated that mitigating wildfires is a national priority and announced forthcoming legislation which he is working on with Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) that will implement recommendations from the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission—a commission of federal and non-federal stakeholders that was formed to study and recommend fire prevention, mitigation, management, and rehabilitation policies for forests and grasslands.

The Commission, first introduced by Senators Romney and Kelly, along with Representative John Curtis (R-UT), in 2021 was enacted after Senator Romney secured its inclusion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In February 2023, the Commission submitted its first report to Congress which outlines a strategy to meet aerial firefighting equipment needs through 2030. Last September, the Commission released its second and final report which outlines the urgent need for increased coordination between federal and local wildfire agencies, the importance of beneficial fires—like prescribed burning, and the need for increased investment in proactive pre-fire and post-fire planning and mitigation.

Senator Romney’s opening statement and exchange with the witnesses—including Utah’s Director of Forestry, Fire and State Lands Jamie Barnes—can be found below and video is available here.

Opening Statement:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for holding this hearing. This is a national priority. It is tragic that we continue to have wildfires of the nature we have. Some have become conflagrations. There’s been massive loss of life. And this is a problem from Hawaii to Canada to the southern border—across the country. And more and more states are being affected by wildfires.

It’s not just a few states of the American West as we sometimes think is the case. It is a national concern. I particularly want to thank Utah’s Director of Forestry, Jamie Barnes, for being here and being willing to share her expertise with this Committee. We have some 800 to 1,000 wildfires per year just in Utah. And when you think about the impact of these fires, I go back to 2018, we had one called the Dollar Ridge Fire. And what was most unusual about that is that it dramatically impacted the watershed going into rivers and streams and lakes, killed wildlife fish, threatened the drinking supply of people in Panguitch, Utah. So, the challenge is not just that we’re putting CO2 and smoke in the air and threatening structures and life, but we’re also affecting our drinking water and the life of wildlife.

In 2021, the Parleys Canyon Fire forced the evacuation of 8,000 residents along the Wasatch Front for an extended period of time. And I went and met with people there and they were angry, asking why couldn’t we do a better job preventing these things from happening? And I didn’t have a lot of answers, and we were actually even considering closing down Interstate 80 as a result of that fire.

So back in 2021, Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona and I introduced the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act. It put together, as you know, some 50 individuals—federal, state, local, private sector, public sector, FEMA. This group came together. They have put together a report as of September of last year with some 148 different recommendations. And Senator Kelly and I are working on legislation to take these recommendations and turn them into law.

That’s one of the reasons we wanted to have this hearing today, to get your perspectives on what things we might want to turn into law. I appreciate very much the work that you’re doing. It is a national priority. I recognize that we can’t keep on doing the way we have in the past. We’re going to have to have some changes.

It’s going to require additional funding. We may need additional fixed wing aircraft, different monitoring systems, different remediation, different forestry management, different prescribed burns processes. There are a lot of things that we are going to have to do differently than we have in the past. So, I look forward to the testimony today, particularly from Director Barnes and the rest of you, and appreciate the willingness of members of our Committee to come together and to focus on this important issue.


Senator Romney: I’m going to direct my first question to Director Barnes, but you others are free to comment on it as well. Director Barnes, you noted the importance of forestry management, but said that there are regulatory barriers that make it difficult for us to effectively manage our forests. What are the barriers that the Commission identified or just based on your own experience? What things should we focus on to be able to make it more likely that we’ll be able to effectively manage the forest prior to a wildfire?

Director Jamie Barnes: Thanks, Senator Romney. So, I think some of those barriers are definitely the NEPA process that we’re going through. Permitting reform is something that we definitely need to be focusing on. Also, efficiencies across agencies is something that we should be focusing on and how we can do better planning efforts. Honestly, in Utah, we do things very well with our interagency partners. I often tell people if everybody could do it the Utah way, the world would be a lot better. We’ve worked on that very hard through shared stewardship, but I think breaking down those barriers through NEPA, the litigation issues that we see that are very costly, and then also the alignment—getting everything aligned to have a project happen—that’s a tricky thing for things to happen. Air quality, if you’re doing prescribed, fire, permitting, everything, lining up all together to make things work—it becomes complicated and complex at times.

Romney: I’m going to add to this question. just personal observation. Having driven through a number of the forests in our state, I was astounded to see that in some cases, perhaps as much as two-thirds of the of the wood of the trees are dead. And if they’re harvested, I’m told within three years or so, they can be used for chipboard and so forth. But the process of getting a permit to harvest this dead wood takes so long that it’s no longer useful and therefore has no economic value. Therefore, we can’t get loggers to come in and take out the dead wood. Does the Commission make any recommendations that would allow us to actually use some of the dead wood to get private sector participants to come in and remove some of the the fuel that adds to the danger of these wildfires?

Barnes: Absolutely, and that’s an important piece of the puzzle in Utah. And again, through shared stewardship, that’s one of the approaches that we have taken. We have invested in a position of a wood utilization specialist within the division and having that person to determine what wood is out there, how can we utilize that wood and how can we get that wood off to the forest to be an economic benefit in the state is something that we’re very focused on and we’re starting to build success in that area. It’s a very important topic.

Romney: Thank you. I’d be happy to hear from any other member of the panel that would like to address as well. Yes, Director.

Administrator Lucinda Andreani: Thank you. One of the Commission recommendations does point to the continuing and additional needed investment in biomass utilization technologies and investments in those businesses. Because much of this, the wood in the West—particularly in Ponderosa Pine area—is very low or no value. And we need to look at other ways that we can create value out of those products. So, continuing investments in those areas is going to be critical.

Romney: Thank you. Let me turn to another topic that you raised, which is the workforce and the pay. Again, Director Barnes, you indicated a desire to provide the appropriate pay between state and local individuals. But there’s been discussion about the difference in pay with federal as well as state and local and how those compare and the conflict that may exist. Likewise, in this regard, there’s some discussion about full time versus part time—at the federal level, we have part time individuals. Who wants to take a job that’s going to require you to have a salary or provide a salary for you maybe five or six months a year, but the rest of the year, you’ve got no pay. Are there solutions in this regard that you all have that we need to consider?

Barnes: Senator Romney, so recently a couple of years ago, Utah passed HB65, which increased wildfire pay. We increased that and brought people up to the level which we felt was comparable with federal pay, a federal wildfire build on firefighters. Right now, we feel that Utah is in a good place with compared with our federal partners. But there is still that compensation bracket with regard to benefits of some of our time-limited firefighters that fight fire just throughout the season do not receive a benefits package. So, that’s also an important piece of that puzzle, bringing people on. As we talked about, fire season is not just fire season anymore. It’s fire year. So compensating is very important. It’s also very important to not have a swift difference in firefighter pay from agency to agency. When a fire happens, it knows no boundary. We’re all out on the landscape. We’re working together. We’re working to put that fire out. So, if you’re a state wildland firefighter or you’re a federal wildland firefighter, we should all be making an amount that is similar, so that there’s no difference in what these people are doing out there in saving our resources.

Romney: Thank you. Any other individuals, please.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell: Please and thank you, Senator, for that. I’d just like to, if I may, transition just a bit to our local firefighters, as you’ve noted, there is a shortage of wildland firefighters, but certainly we’re having a shortage in the structural side as well. And it’s up to the structural firefighters to often cover on federal state lands. Regardless, they are the first boots on the ground, not a federal firefighter. And so our local firefighters—and I’d like to express my gratitude certainly to the Senate for already have passed the SAFER Act. This is critical to making sure we can continue to recruit structural firefighters across the nation because we are on the edge of a shortage nationwide.

Romney: Thank you.