On June 23, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the discussion draft of the “Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act of 2016.” The draft bill aims to address the rapidly increasing expenditures on wildfires occurring at the expense of other forest management programs, as well as recreation and timbering activities. As wildfires increase in number and intensity, more and more funds are spent fighting them rather than on management and fire prevention, causing a cascade of management issues at the U.S. Forest Service.
Fire Borrowing: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul
Wildfire severity and incidence have increased due to many reasons: over-grown federal forests from decades of fire suppression, a growing number of homes in the urban-wild interface, increased surface temperatures, and a historic drought. Wildfire seasons have been worsening overall for the past decade, but with only stop-gap measures to address budgetary shortfalls.
The bill, introduced in May by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Mike Crapo (R-ID), is a bipartisan attempt to address the issue of “fire borrowing.” Fire borrowing refers to the process of transferring funds mid-year from other services to firefighting. This practice has become common in recent years and has left forest management severely underfunded. In 2015, more than 60 percent of the Forest Service’s budget was consumed by wildfire funding – up from 16 percent in 1995. At the hearing, Senator Wyden (D-OR) commented, “Ending the plague of fire-borrowing is now the longest-running battle since the Trojan War.”
Disagreement on Funding Solutions Remain
The Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act of 2016 addresses both the wildfire budgeting process, as well as forestry management, as opposed to the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) (H.R. 167 and S. 235). While WDFA has broad bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, there remains a core group of lawmakers opposed to addressing fire borrowing without simultaneously reforming forestry management practices.
According to Chairman Murkowski (R-AK), “it’s clear that we have a real and growing problem on our hands, and resolving it will require a comprehensive solution that addresses both wildfire funding and forest management. We need to do both, at once, because we know the wildfire problem is not just a budgeting problem – it’s also a management problem.”
The Ten Year Average
The draft bill discussed on Thursday would end fire borrowing by budgeting suppression costs at 100 percent of the 10-year average, and allowing for additional budget authority above the 10-year average, when necessary. It would also allow any excess fire suppression funds in milder years to be put toward other projects. While this is one important step towards fixing the Forest Service budget, many lawmakers, the administration, and forestry stakeholders say that the bill doesn’t go far enough to fix the issue of fire borrowing.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is that the bill uses the average cost of fire suppression over the last 10 years to set the budget. Since these costs are continually rising, the 10-year average will take up a larger and larger portion of the total Forest Service budget. According to Senators Crapo (R-ID) and Wyden (D-OR), “If the 10-year average cost of fighting fires isn’t contained, like the fires themselves, it will continue to rage out of control.”
The Obama administration supports creating a separate emergency disaster fund to fight severe wildfires. It has proposed that the worst one percent of wildfires, which account for 30 percent of costs, be categorized as natural disasters and dealt with by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as proposed by WRDA. At Thursday’s hearing, Robert Bonnie, Undersecretary of Natural Resources at the Department of Agriculture, suggested freezing the 10-year average at 2015 levels. If costs exceed this, a separate disaster cap fund would be tapped.
Stakeholders, including a number of the witnesses, and many environmental groups continue to push for a cap on the 10-year average. EESI is a member of the Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus, a group of over 100 organizations that support addressing both the rising 10-year average to stem the erosion of non-fire related management Forest Service budgets.
Bill Amendments Address Forestry Management
Another component of the bill would require a full inventory of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and would delay any new management plans until its completion. Committee Chairman Murkowski defended this component to Bonnie, who suggested that this would be an unnecessary delay. The inventory and resulting management plan were also of special interest to Eric Nichols, a partner at Alcan Forest Products. Nichols said that a favorable management plan is vital to the survival of the Alaskan timber industry.
The bill also introduces a Ponderosa pine pilot project, which prioritizes hazardous fuel removal from more than two million acres of dry, pine-dominated forests. This section was supported by ranking member Cantwell, who referenced studies from California Polytechnic State University that suggested fuel removal could reduce the risk of fires in these areas by as much as 50 percent. Dr. Peter Goldmark, Commissioner of Public Lands at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, agreed with these assessments, saying, “. . . where there has been active management before the fire, it has a demonstrable impact on the severity of the fire. In many cases, the fire doesn’t even penetrate those areas that have been managed. . . It is the single best thing we can do in advance of fires.”
In her opening statement, Senator Cantwell (D-WA) commented that despite working on this issue for several years, more needed to be done to address the role that climate change is playing in the increase in wildfire duration, severity and number. Addressing this new normal will demand a “new response,” according to Cantwell.
Author: Rebecca Chillrud
For more information see:
Senators, Obama Administration Butt Heads over Wildfire Costs, Morning Consult
Senators Work to Improve Forest Management and Wildfire Budgeting, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources