WASHINGTON – Congress is trying to sift through the smoke on how to fix “fire borrowing,” a process a bipartisan group of U.S. senators say is hampering vital fire-prevention measures in Western forests.
During a Senate hearing on wildfire preparedness and President Barack Obama’s proposed 2015 budget for the U.S. Forest Service, senators from both sides of the aisle acknowledged – amidst longer and hotter wildfire seasons – the urgency of reworking the budget for wildfire management.
In May, the Department of Interior and Forest Service predicted it would take $1.8 billion to fight wildfires this season – $470 million more than the budget Congress appropriated. When the funds run dry, the agencies have to transfer money from other nonfire programs, like timber and hazardous fuel-reduction programs, in a process known as “fire borrowing.”
Many Democrats are pulling for legislation introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, that would add wildfires to the list of natural disasters eligible for emergency federal assistance. Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennett are co-sponsors.
“In Colorado, the question is not if we will have another mega-fire – it’s when,” Udall said. “The U.S. Forest Service can’t serve as a reliable partner because of its outdated and profoundly broken wildfire budgeting system.”
According to a June report from the Department of Agriculture, multiple deferred trail improvements and forest restoration work in Colorado in the past two years can be blamed on fire borrowing.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said the county and region suffer when funding is pulled.
“These catastrophic fires aren’t treated like other major disasters federally, so our Forest Service and (Bureau of Land Management) agencies have to delay essential preventative projects, and dealing with the wildfires becomes almost their main reason for being,” Lachelt said.
Last week, Obama asked Congress for an additional $615 million for firefighting. He also mirrored the requests from bills in the Senate and the House that called for wildfires to be added to the list of natural disasters eligible for emergency federal assistance.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Jeff Flake, R.-Ariz., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., offered a different fix for tackling wildfires – one that would include thinning 7.5 million acres of forests on federal land, with the help of the private sector, and also require more stringent guidelines for agencies to dip into emergency funds.
McCain said during the hearing that instead of “throwing money at wildfires” through federal emergency funds, the timber industry could help “the government take action through thinning.”
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said during the hearing that while the Forest Service needs to focus on hazardous-material reduction, he worried McCain’s legislation might limit the use of other tools to manage the forests in favor of sending money to timber contracting.
Last week, House Democrat’s filed a discharge petition in order to force a vote on bipartisan legislation similar to the Senate’s bill calling for wildfires to be designated as natural disasters. If the petition gets 218 signatures, it will allow the House to vote on the bill.
With only a few weeks until the August recess, it is still up in the air what consensus Congress will reach with regard to finding a fix to the current practices of fund transfers to pay for wildfires.
Tidwell said staff for forest management is down 49 percent because of the massive amount of budget eaten up by costs of fires. He said the fix to the situation may lie in additional funding – something not everyone in Congress is on board with.
“I know that we have an opportunity that if we want to reinvest we can make a difference to reduce the threat to our communities, to our firefighters, but it’s going to take additional investments,” he said.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary Bowerman is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.