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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