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Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management contracting bill goes to Senate floor

Legislation that would make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to cancel stewardship contracts just made it to the Senate floor. The Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee officially reported the Stewardship Contracting Reauthorization & Improvement Act (S. 1300). The committee report officially became available online on the congressional website on Thursday, June 5.

The bill was initially introduced last July 16. The committee voted to approve it last December 19. But it didn't officially file the report to allow a Senate vote until last week. The bill was placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar as Calender No. 406. The Senate may now vote on it but no vote is currently planned yet. No companion bill is pending in the House.

The bill would expand and authorize until 2023 the ability of the agencies to enter into management contracts with local private agencies. These activities have been allowed on a limited basis under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2013. The law technically expired last October. Activities can include road and trail maintenance and efforts to improve the environment or habitat for fish and wild animals or remove invasive species. Contracts would be awarded on a “best value” basis.

Most of the provisions in the act have already been signed into law as part of the Agricultural Act of 2014, which Congress passed in December. But this bill includes a provision not in the other bill that would allow the agencies to cover the costs of canceling the contracts. The Antideficiency Act does not allow federal agencies to spend money not appropriated to them. But the committee figured that the costs of canceling any contracts would be “negligible.”

The bill also includes a provision limiting the fire liability of contractors except in cases of “gross negligence.” Contracts granted under the law could last up to a decade.

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