Can Congress Keep Its Fire Budget in Check?

As wildfire spending grows, lawmakers still haven’t found a fix.

A plane drops retardant while battling the Cold Springs Fire near Nederland, as viewed from Sugarloaf, Colo., Sunday, July 10, 2016. Fire authorities are warning that shifting high winds and high temperatures could put homes in danger. The fire that started on Saturday spread quickly.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
June 15, 2017, 8 p.m.

For years, ever-worsening wildfires haven’t just devastated national forests, but have burned through more and more of the Forest Service budget, more than half of which is now dedicated to fighting fires.

Congress, however, has struggled to find a fix, caught in divisions over how to fix budget shortfalls and how best to keep forests at a healthy level to survive fire season. Competing bills have already been introduced, leaving open whether legislators can find a solution this year.

The government currently allocates fire-suppression funds based on a 10-year average of fire costs, which incorporates early years when fire costs were not as high. If costs exceed that average, both the Forest Service and the Interior Department can transfer funds from other programs, something that’s happened with increasing regularity.

In 1995, the Forest Service spent just 16 percent of its budget on fire suppression; in 2015, it had risen to 52 percent. That year, $700 million had to be transferred to cover the shortfall.

Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser, president of the National Association of State Foresters, said that the years of debate should help get legislators to a solution. “There’s no sweeping changes in the understanding of fire,” he said, “but we’re getting to where everyone is better informed on the issue and the solutions.” But in the meantime, the lack of an answer has harmed his members’ ability to work even as the fires have worsened.

“There’s a lot of Forest Service dollars that pass through the states, to help private landowners, fire departments, volunteers. These are dollars that states use for training, equipment, helping their fire departments, and the infrastructure of the national fire system,” Crapser said. “Borrowing puts a lot of unrest in the system.”

A bipartisan House bill from Reps. Mike Simpson and Kurt Schrader would reclassify fires like other natural disasters, allowing the Forest Service to access disaster funding once its suppression budget is exhausted. But there’s a debate over whether that approach is best, or whether the government should instead revise the Stafford Act to create a new Federal Emergency Management Agency account for fires.

Each proposal has had fits and starts; an unsuccessful Stafford Act approach was negotiated by the Obama administration, while recent bills have tried to lift the budget cap.

The House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, however, considered a draft bill from Rep. Bruce Westerman that focused more on forest resiliency, based on a House-passed bipartisan bill from last year. The bill would allow for expedited review for certain management projects on federal lands and would require that more federal forest be regrown after fires (it also allows FEMA to transfer funds to the Forest Service).

“Management is directly related to how much fire you get. If we work on the prevention of fires, we won’t have to spend as much on suppression,” Westerman said in an interview. He also emphasized that his bill would help boost the timber industry, calling it a “win-win” to keep wood stock from going up in flame.

Democrats have said the bill gives too much leeway to the timber industry, while circumventing federal protections. Hawaii Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said Thursday that the bill “strikes at the core of environmental laws,” including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, by limiting public input on certain management activities.

It all adds up to bickering with no solution in sight, even as Congress has gotten close. A fix almost made the omnibus in 2015, but was pulled; a bicameral energy bill last year would have had some wildfire language, but it never emerged.

According to a monthly report from the National Interagency Fire Center, more acres have burned so far in 2017 than normal, although the number of fires remains below average, and fire season in the West is expected to start later and be below normal or normal over the summer, while the Great Basin and middle elevation areas in California will see above-normal fire potential.

Even beyond the legislative problems, the administration’s budget proposal has raised red flags. It would cut the U.S. Forest Service by $970 million in 2018. Within that budget, $500 million would be added to the Wildland Fire program, although $821 million would be cut from a reserve fund created under the FLAME Act and a program funding collaborative forest-restoration projects would be zeroed out.

“Those cuts were worrisome on face value,” said Cecilia Clavet, a senior policy adviser at the Nature Conservancy. “That would be very disruptive for any ongoing projects, and would have a lot of negative impacts on relationships that agency has with different partners.”

Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell told legislators last week that the budget would allow the service to “maintain our success rate” in fire suppression, although he did urge a long-term fix. The earlier a bill came, he said, “the sooner you have more flexibility to provide funding to address the needs of your constituents.”

Tidwell has urged Congress to allow the government to declare the most dangerous fires as national emergencies, like hurricanes, freeing up a different money stream.

Whether Congress can get a fix this year remains unclear. Westerman’s bill passed the House last year, but a Senate version did not gather bipartisan support; Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts said he was planning a similar bill again this year.

Sen. Steve Daines, who chairs the Agriculture subcommittee overseeing forestry, said he was eying a bill pairing forest management and budget, but said the farm bill was also an avenue for moving some legislation.

“I’ll never predict outcomes here, but I know we’re going to stay very focused,” Daines said. “We have to. We’re in a crisis mode today in our national forests, it’s tragic what’s going on.”

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