Will Congress act on wildfire funding?

Budget ‘borrowing’ reaches $700 million as political gridlock prevents meaningful budget reform

A wildfire in Yellowstone National Park. Photo via National Park Service.

Staff Report

With wildfires still raging across the West, the U.S. Forest Service has already used up its firefighting budget for the year. This week, the agency notified Congress that another $250 million will be needed to cover the spiraling costs.

Subsequently, top cabinet officials sent a formal letter asking Congress to change the way the nation pays for firefighting so that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can invest in forest and rangeland restoration, and make lands less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.

The letter once again explained to a gridlocked Congress that fire seasons have grown longer, and that fires have become bigger, more frequent and more severe in the past few decades. Business as usual is not an option, especially with climate change knocking at the door, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell wrote.

Already this year, resource agencies have transferred $700 million away from forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires. The Forest Service transferred funds in seven of the last 14 years, while in six of the last 14 years, DOI had to transfer funds.

While the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) are able to suppress or manage 98 percent of fires with allocated funds, catastrophic megafires burn through the agency’s financial resources. One to two percent of fires consume 30 percent or more of total actual annual fire suppression dollars.

“Restoring resilient forests helps to protect against future fire outbreaks and is vital to minimizing long-term costs to lives, private and public properties, and to struggling rural economies,” Vilsack said. “Under the current budget structure we are forced to abandon these critical restoration and capital improvement projects in order to suppress these few but extreme fires,” Vilsack said.

The costs of wildfire preparedness and suppression now account for 76 percent of the DOI wildfire management program budget and, as in the case of the Forest Service, reduce the amounts of funds available for fuels management and restoration efforts. These activities are essential for reducing risks of catastrophic fires, increasing the resiliency of lands to recover from fire, and to protect communities and infrastructure.

“The rising costs of fighting wildfires come at the expense of other programs that reduce the risk of catastrophic fires, increase the ability of our lands to recover from fire, and help protect communities and infrastructure,” said Jewell. “The President’s budget and a bipartisan group in Congress recognize this and have a commonsense solution – treat catastrophic wildfires like the natural disasters they are. Congress can stop this perpetual downward spiral that each year increases fire risk and jeopardizes critical resources that support prevention and recovery efforts,” she said

The Administration proposes that DOI and the Forest Service would be able to access a discretionary disaster cap adjustment after the amount spent on fire suppression exceeds 70 percent of the 10-year average.

This is mirrored in the proposed bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) which is budget neutral and also has broad stakeholder support. This approach allows the agencies to invest additional resources in forest and rangeland restoration and management.



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