Wildfire funding reform heats up in Congress

by Ashley Bach

As fires continue to burn in forests around the West, most people seem to agree that we need to change the way the federal government pays to fight wildfires. The Forest Service is now spending most of its budget on firefighting, and that leaves little room for fire prevention, including forest thinning.

From a report this week:

In a new report released Wednesday, the (U.S. Forest Service) says that while it spent 16 percent of its total budget on preparing for and fighting fires in 1995, it will spend more than half its budget this year on the same task — and a projected 67 percent or more by 2025 under current funding arrangements.

By ten years from now, the agency’s expenditures for fighting wildfires as they flare up — dubbed fire suppression — are projected to increase from just under $1.1 billion in 2014 to nearly $1.8 billion. And that’s just one of a number of fire related costs; there is also an annual, fixed fire “preparedness” budget that exceeds $1 billion each year.

The Forest Service report says the agency’s very mission is “threatened” by this trend of increased fires, which is having a “debilitating impact” on other Forest Service responsibilities due to a phenomenon where funds for other priorities get shifted towards immediate wildfire emergencies.

The rub lies, however, in the fact that the Obama administration and many Democrats differ from many Republicans on how to fix the problem. Both sides agree that the Forest Service needs to change the way it funds the firefighting, but Republicans also want much more active management of federal forests – in order to keep the forests healthy and to prevent the wildfires before they start.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (whose department oversees the Forest Service) has been making a full-court press this week in support of legislation that he says would solve the firefighting funding problem. He’s done several interviews (including with the Yakima Herald-Republic), authored an op-ed in the Seattle Times, and the Forest Service released the report mentioned above.

The legislation that Obama and Vilsack are supporting is similar to a wildfire funding proposal pushed by the President last year, a proposal we wrote about then.

Here’s how Vilsack summarized the legislation in his Times op-ed:

Under the bill, 70 percent of the costs of fire suppression are treated just as they are now — paid for out of the regular Forest Service budget. For the 1 percent of fires that account for 30 percent of total fire-suppression costs, the Forest Service could access disaster funding. This approach treats these large, expensive fires as natural disasters while allowing the Forest Service to reinvest funding in forest restoration activities that reduce the threat of catastrophic fires.

Many Republicans, however, don’t believe the legislation goes nearly far enough to increase active managment of our federal forests. Nick Smith, the executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, an Oregon group that advocates for active forest management and healthy rural communities, wrote an op-ed this week in The Hill, a D.C. newspaper.

The answer, he writes, is the Resilient Federal Forests Act, a bill passed by the U.S. House last month.

The Obama administration and members of Congress from both parties have pledged to end the practice of fire borrowing. Some have embraced legislation that would treat wildfires as natural disasters, allowing the federal government to pay the expense of fighting the largest wildfires through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Others believe the government should reduce costs by proactively increasing the pace and scale of forest management activities, considering that between 60 to 80 million acres of federal forests are at risk and in need of treatment.

Both are correct.  And that’s why the House of Representatives approved the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (HR 2647) on a bipartisan vote in July.  The legislation gives the Forest Service policy and legal tools to make federal forests less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease.  It also ends the practice of fire borrowing by allowing the Forest Service or Department of Interior to request funds from FEMA within 30 days of all suppression funds being exhausted.

Everyone agrees the Forest Service should be able to stop “fire borrowing” – raiding other parts of the agency’s budget to fight wildfires – but Smith says the legislation has to be broader than that.

If the federal government is serious about reducing wildfire suppression costs, it will end fire borrowing but also address obstructive litigation and reduce the time and cost necessary to prepare and implement forest projects.  Otherwise American taxpayers will continue to shoulder the costs of fighting larger and more severe wildfires.

A compromise bill could be in order. Even some supporters of Vilsack’s proposal believe the legislation passed by the House and supported by many Republicans could be worked into something that passes muster for Democrats.

An even more far-reaching package approved by the House on a mostly party-line vote July 9 would shift emergency funding into firefighting, but also speed timber salvage environmental reviews and erect new hurdles to lawsuits.

“The bromides of the environmental left have proven disastrous to the health of our forests, the preservation of our wildlife, and the welfare of our mountain communities,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said during House debate.

The Obama administration strongly opposes the bill, called the Resilient Federal Forests Act, though it includes within it budget proposals that could be the basis for future compromise.

“I have reason to believe it will be significantly modified,” (said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who supports Vilsack’s proposal), adding that “if we can tone it down” while “we build up the funding,” the measure might be rendered palatable.

This post originally appeared on the Washington Forest Protection Association website.