Proper fire funding continues to elude Congress

Nearly everyone agrees it’s important. So what’s the hold-up?

 

On Sept. 14, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue officially declared that the 2017 fire season was the Forest Service’s most expensive ever, with costs topping $2 billion. Perdue noted that fire suppression, which accounted for just 16 percent of the agency’s budget in 1995, now takes up over 55 percent. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention,” he wrote in a press release, “because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires.”

The Forest Service’s fire funding is subject to a budget cap based on the average cost of wildfire suppression over the last 10 years. But even as that average increases, the agency’s overall budget remains relatively flat. So when costs go higher, the agency, in a practice known as “fire borrowing,” must pull from funds intended for other programs — including those that help reduce fire danger, like prescribed burns, thinning and insect control. This vicious cycle has continued for years. “How can you run an agency when your single biggest cost is unknown?” asks Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who has long pushed for a solution. Simpson and others hope that this year’s intense season, which burned more than 8.5 million acres, will motivate fellow lawmakers to pass legislation.

In 2009, the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act, established emergency reserves for the Forest Service and the Interior Department for fighting major fires. But FLAME has been underfunded, and fire borrowing has continued. Since then, despite bipartisan, bicameral agreement that this increasingly urgent problem must be resolved, other efforts to do so have stalled out in Congress, mainly because lawmakers disagree about where the money should come from and what, if any, forest management provisions should be attached to the funding fix.

A house that was spared from the Brianhead Fire in Utah, which started in June and covered more than 70,000 acres. Suppression efforts cost more than $35 million. Fire agencies devote much of their resources to protecting structures, particularly as the wildland-urban interface gets more developed. Deploying aircraft is also a huge cost in fighting wildfires.
Kari Greer

Congress has considered two main options: increasing the budget cap and using Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act — introduced in the House by Simpson and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho — takes the first approach. Currently, the Forest Service and the Interior Department are the only federal entities that must fund disasters through their discretionary budgets rather than from an emergency fund. This bill would let the Forest Service and Interior Department adjust their caps upward, allowing them to access disaster funding rather than borrowing from other programs. First introduced in 2013, the bill has received wide congressional support this year.

“Coming to agreement on the right approach slowed things down,” notes Cecilia Clavet, senior policy advisor at The Nature Conservancy. The problem for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, says Simpson, has always been that “the budget committee doesn’t like cap adjustments.” But FEMA funding has its problems, too: Those funds are typically used for single-event disasters. “A hurricane comes, you know what the damage is,” he says. “The problem with wildfires is they happen all year.” Pursuing FEMA funds on a case-by-case basis would also force wildfire to compete with other natural disasters. More and more legislators involved in this issue are now leaning toward the budget cap adjustment approach, Clavet says.

The issue of forest management is more complicated. Several Republican members of Congress “would like to see forest management wrapped up with fire funding,” Clavet says. But even among those legislators, there is little agreement over what provisions to include. Logging provisions and attempts to streamline environmental laws prove particularly divisive. Many Democrats oppose the Resilient Federal Forests Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., which passed in the House on Nov. 1. It would increase the size of categorical exclusions that hasten the permitting process for thinning and logging projects.

Democrats are concerned that the legislation would use wildfire prevention to fast-track logging projects and limit environmental review. Mike Anderson, senior policy analyst at The Wilderness Society, says such bills face resistance from conservation groups due to what they see as “an attack on bedrock environmental laws” like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Anderson expects there will be more pushback against bundling forest management provisions with fire funding in the Senate, where a companion bill to Westerman’s has not been introduced.

Fire funding has received heightened attention from Western lawmakers in the wake of the California wine country fires, which killed more than 40 people. On Oct. 25, California Gov. Jerry Brown, D, and four other Western governors wrote to congressional leaders, urging them to “reform the federal wildfire suppression funding formula and provide stability for long-term planning and wildfire mitigation practices.” The California fires “opened a lot of eyes” that this issue needs to be fixed, Simpson says. “I think we’re going to get it done this year.”

Rebecca Worby is an HCN editorial fellow.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...