Conservation groups are pushing for Congress to fully fund expected forest firefighting needs so that funds for preventive measures won't be raided. (The 2013 Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in California. U.S. Forest Service photo.)

As Congress hammers out a final federal budget deal, rural advocates say the time is now to deliver a policy fix that provides adequate funding for fighting wildfires while also supporting forest management activities that limit fire risk. 

“This is the best chance we have to fix the problem of ‘fire borrowing,’” said Tyson Bertone-Riggs of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC).  

Fire borrowing moves funding from other parts of the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior budgets to fire suppression according to a formula. The system reduces the amount of money available for activities that reduce the threat of wildfire in the first place. 

“With an increase in domestic spending on the table, Congress can take action over the next few weeks to support forest restoration activities that will protect rural communities from wildfires,” Bertone-Riggs said. 

RVCC, along with other rural and conservation organizations, have supported policy changes that would fund preventative wildfire management practices even as the cost of fighting wildfires increases with need. Currently, emergency wildfire spending occurs at the expense of thinning, brush clearing, invasive species removal and other activities that decrease the fuel load for fire-prone forests.  

The portion of the U.S. Forest Service and U. S. Department of Interior budgets that goes to fight fires is calculated from a 10-year average of fire suppression spending. As wildfire costs have risen in the past decade, the wildfire budget eats up a growing share. This leaves efforts for fire suppression underfunded and decreases funding for programs that might prevent fires in the first place. 

The Forest Service’s Cost of Fire Operations program tracks wildfire expenditures by the federal government. “With costs exceeding $2.4 billion, the 2017 fire season was the most expensive ever,” the agency reports. “The cumulative costs of wildland fire suppression activities, once again, exceed the funding available.”   

According to the U.S. Forest Service: “With costs exceeding $2.4 billion, the 2017 fire season was the most expensive ever. The cumulative costs of wildland fire suppression activities, once again, exceed the funding available.” (Source: U.S. Forest Service graphic)

For 2018, conditions exist for another year of heavy wildfire spending. The National Interagency Fire Center issued its Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for February through May. Its data reveal significant wildfire potential in the southern and northern Great Plains. In addition, USDA’s Drought Monitor documents widespread drought conditions across the West, with particular severity occurring in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.  

Despite the continued threat, a bipartisan deal to pair fire borrowing fix with forest management reforms and a two-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program fell apart and was not included in the final budget agreement negotiated earlier in February. The next opportunity for lawmakers to weigh in on the wildfire issue is the Fiscal 2018 omnibus package that Congress is expected to pass before March 23.  

“We are disappointed that Congress failed to address the wildfire funding problem as part of this spending package,” said Lynn Scarlett of The Nature Conservancy. “However, we are hopeful that legislators will continue working toward a bipartisan solution and will include a comprehensive fire funding fix in the upcoming omnibus bill. Our country cannot afford to continue the destructive cycle of fighting megafires at the expense of the very programs that reduce wildfire risk,” Scarlett said.  

There are some partisan disagreements that have prevented passage of a wildfire deal as part of the budget process. Some Republicans are asking for changes to forest management laws in exchange for increased budgets for fighting wildfires. The majority party is seeking policies to get around the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws to increase forest harvests. Many Democrats are skeptical of these changes.  

“We all had high hopes we would get something done,” Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “I think everybody is frustrated.” 

Joseph said the two sides still have some differences to resolve. But he said he hoped a deal could be reached as Congress works on filling in the details of the budget agreement. Another possibility, according to Joseph, is attaching language to a measure reauthorizing farm support programs.  

In addition to the Congressional appropriations process, the Trump administration has called for more aggressive timber harvest to decrease wildfire risk. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has directed all “bureaus, superintendents, and land managers at all levels to adopt more aggressive practices, using the full authority of the Department, to prevent and combat the spread of catastrophic wildfires through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques.” 

Bill Gabbert, who worked full time on wildland fire for 33 years, disagrees with the Administration’s more aggressive position. Gabbert wrote in Wildfire Today that, “politicizing wildland fire management and going out of your way to create barriers that make it more difficult to get anything done, is not the best course of action to preserve and protect our natural resources and public facilities.” 

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