Fire funding fix comes with environmental rollbacks

The legislation sets up an emergency disaster fund but also weakens protections for trees and wildlife.

 

Congress accomplished something unprecedented last week: They passed a bipartisan solution to a knotty budget issue that has hobbled the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to do restoration and fire-prevention work in Western forests. The $1.3 trillion federal spending package, signed into law by President Donald Trump last Friday, included a long-sought funding fix for wildfire response. Starting in 2020, the Forest Service will be able to access over $2 billion a year outside of its regular fire suppression budget.

As recently as 1995, the Forest Service spent only 16 percent of its budget on fire. In 2017, though, wildfire suppression costs ate up more than half the agency’s budget, exceeding $2 billion. Because its fire budget rarely matched the true costs of increasingly explosive fire seasons, the agency was then forced to raid other programs to pay for firefighting. Such “fire borrowing” robbed funding from watershed restoration projects, invasive species programs and initiatives to reduce fire risk.

The Camillo Fire burns near Flagstaff, Arizona in 2015. Small fires like this one help clean and remove down logs and dead trees, lessening the threat of severe and costly wildfires.
Coconino National Forest

The fix in the spending bill should end, or at least greatly reduce, fire borrowing. However, roughly half the Forest Service’s annual budget will still be dedicated to fire suppression. Where the fix improves the situation is in allowing the agency to pull additional money from an emergency disaster fund when costs exceed its normal fire budget, as they are expected to do in coming years.

Many environmentalists celebrated the achievement. “It is a really great fix,” says Cecilia Clavet, a senior policy advisor for the Nature Conservancy. “You are talking about stabilizing the Forest Service budget so that they can do the activities that they should be focused on.” Clavet hopes that Congress and the agency respond by reinvesting in fire prevention and restoration projects.

But other conservation groups question whether the fix was worth the compromises included in the bill, which could undermine environmental protections for forests and wildlife. The bill includes two riders that concern them. The first will allow logging projects less than 3,000 acres in size to move forward with little environmental review, so long as the goal of those projects is to reduce heavy fuel loads that increase fire risk. Previous legislation has authorized such exemptions on other grounds, for instance for projects in diseased and insect-infested forest stands. Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild, says such loopholes have made some old-growth stands in Oregon vulnerable to cutting.

“It’s just a green light for abuse,” argues Brett Hartl, governmental affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Three thousand here, 3,000 there. Soon you are talking a lot of acres.”

A second provision could delay habitat protections for newly listed threatened and endangered species. It targets a 2015 ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which determined that the Forest Service is obligated to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when new species are listed to evaluate whether its management plans might harm the species. The case focused on the agencys failure to revisit how its forest plans could impact critical habitat for the Canada lynx. The forest plans are management blueprints for large landscapes, and the rider to the fire fix essentially allows the agency to skip this big picture review for newly listed species. Such reviews can now be delayed until official revisions of forest plans, which happen every 15 years in the best-case scenario.

The agency will still have to consider the effects of logging projects proposed within a species habitat on a case-by-case basis. But the change means it could approve a number of small projects without considering their cumulative impact. Hartl calls it a potential “death by a thousand cuts,” particularly for wide-ranging species like the lynx. Each new project could gradually whittle away their habitat.

Susan Jane Brown, director of the Western Environmental Law Center’s wild lands program, says it’s unfortunate that concessions to the timber industry made it into the bill. But on balance, shes glad the fix is in. “(I’ve) seen other proposals that could have been a lot worse.” Broadly, other environmental groups agree. “A lot of negotiations took place to get to a moderate package,” Clavet says. Peter Nelson, director of federal lands at Defenders of Wildlife, similarly supports the fix, but concedes that it does feel “like one step forward and one step back.”

Hartl, on the other hand, simply thinks the environment got shorted. “I never think it is a good deal when the Democrats get money and Republicans get to change the underlying environmental laws,” he says. “Because one thing is temporary and one thing is not.”

Jessica Kutz is an editorial intern at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    TRANSPORTATION PLANNER Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the...
  • EARNED MEDIA MANAGER WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...