Congress ignores the West’s firefighting needs

 

Congress still hasn’t figured out how to pay for wildfires. Choked by partisan bickering and entrenched refusals to compromise, the 113th Congress has passed the fewest pieces of legislation of any Congress in the past two decades -- just 108 significant laws, compared to nearly 170 per session from 1995 to 2010.

One of the most notable bills languishing without action would fix the long-standing, serious problem of how we pay for fighting wildfires without plundering the federal programs meant to keep the woods from burning. “It’s a catch-22,” says Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors’ Association. “Firefighting shouldn’t come at the expense of fire prevention.” Each year across the nation, wildfires burn an average of 7 million acres, and while the U.S. Forest Service allocates about 40 percent of its budget to firefighting, in extreme years that funding burns up by July or August, a month or more before fire season ends.

Then the borrowing begins. Staffers call it “fire stealing”-- taking money to fight fires from forest stewardship, research and recreation.

Congress is supposed to return that borrowed money, but even when it does, work has already been disrupted, and ironically, funding is often yanked from projects that could help reduce the risk and intensity of wildfires. During 2012 and 2013, roughly $1 billion was pilfered, leaving the agency too broke to thin trees near homes in Arizona’s Verde watershed, for example, or reduce fire hazards in California’s Tahoe National Forest.

Federal and state officials and policymakers agree that the current budgeting model, also used by the Department of Interior, is broken. Firefighting costs keep climbing. Wildfire season is two months longer than it used to be, and since the 1970s, the average acreage burned has increased five-fold. Meanwhile, development keeps encroaching on forests, forcing firefighters to defend homes, an expensive –– and dangerous –– task.

The most promising remedy so far has been stalled out in the House since last December. Called the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, it would treat the biggest wildfires like any other natural disaster, allowing land-management agencies to tap a $2.7 billion federal disaster relief account, like FEMA does after hurricanes and earthquakes. That would let agencies fully fund existing programs, including those that reduce fire danger. This is the same approach proposed in President Obama’s 2015 budget.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has bipartisan support across Congress. Sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and by Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., it’s garnered 62 Republican cosponsors and 87 Democratic cosponsors. More than 200 organizations have endorsed it, ranging from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the American Loggers Council and The Nature Conservancy -- even the National Rifle Association. Five Western governors sent letters supporting the bill, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has urged its passage.

Yet, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has gone nowhere, thanks to opposition from two powerful House members: Budget Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Natural Resources Chair Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

In July, Ryan sent his colleagues a letter stating that the bill would break the federal budget by increasing spending and deficits. Simpson and Schrader have countered that their proposal doesn’t change total spending.

Both Ryan and Hastings are pushing instead for Senate action on Hastings’ Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which the House passed last fall. It doesn’t solve the fire-borrowing problem, but supporters say it would reduce fire danger, and hence suppression costs, by expediting grazing and logging projects that remove fuel from forests. However, the bill would also reduce environmental review and limit public comment, and President Obama has said he would veto it.

The administration proposed an emergency infusion of $615 million to prop up Forest Service budgets this fall, since any legislative fix wouldn’t take effect until next year. But that request, bundled with a controversial immigration measure, failed to pass either chamber. 

So Congress went into the August recess without action, and as major wildfires continue to burn in Washington, Oregon and California, the Forest Service is faced with “borrowing” yet again. On Aug. 15, the Western Governors’ Association sent an urgent letter to House and Senate leaders asking them to “resolve this burgeoning problem for the West without further delay.” Now that Congress is back in session, perhaps representatives will finally act.

“There’s always the possibility that common sense will break through the ideological arguments,” says Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state, where summer wildfires have burned roughly 400,000 acres and 370 homes, and killed one person. “Especially if people in the House could stand next to a charred family home.”

Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, where she is the magazine’s managing editor.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.