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
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations to value, conserve, enhance, manage, and protect...
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • NORTH TUCSON FOOTHILLS
    11.63 acres of lush desert foothills on Tucson's near north side, secluded, secure, no HOA. 10 minute walk to Waldorf and Montessori schools, regional bike...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.