Lawmakers praise funding fix for fighting fires
Oregon lawmakers say they've fixed a flaw that forced the U.S. Forest Service to break its budget to pay for firefighting efforts.
When the Eagle Creek Wildfire raged through the Columbia River Gorge last year, the Forest Service couldn't tap into federal disaster relief funds made available for other types of emergencies, like floods, hurricanes or earthquakes.
Instead, they had to divert the money from other programs already funded within the federal agency, namely habitat restoration and protection.
The practice — known as fire borrowing — has for years been viewed as a major bugaboo by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.
"Common sense has finally prevailed when it comes to how the Forest Service pays to fight record-breaking forest fires that devastate homes and communities in Oregon and the West," Wyden said in a statement provided to The Outlook.
"This long-overdue, bipartisan solution to the madness of 'fire borrowing' will at last treat these infernos like the natural disasters they are," he continued.
The legislation passed with a bicameral effort involving several Republicans from Oregon and Idaho, including Rep. Greg Walden, who represents Oregon's rural 2nd District.
"Importantly, this legislation fixes the way we pay to fight wildfires," Walden said. "Rather than requiring the Forest Service and BLM to rob the accounts used for forest management and fire prevention, we provide funds that will be used specifically for fire fighting. This will help end the vicious cycle of depleting resources for fire prevention to pay for fire suppression, which increases the risk of catastrophic wildfires year after year."
Wyden and Walden were joined in support of the legislation by Oregon Democrats Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Kurt Schrader.
The change to the budget was added into the $1.3 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill signed by President Donald Trump in late March.
The new law allows the Forest Service to tap into an extra $2.25 billion in emergency funding by 2020, with annual increases that reach almost $3 billion by 2027. The agency already spends about half its annual budget — $4.73 billion in the 2018 fiscal year — on firefighting, which isn't expected to change.
Part of the problem is that the Forest Service is required to forecast firefighting costs by rolling up the past 10 years — a method that critics say is outdated and doesn't account for drought conditions and overstocked forests.
The new law contains plenty of trade-offs pushed by Republicans. For instance, the Forest Service will no longer perform mandatory environmental reviews when thinning out underbrush and small trees on plots of land under 3,000 acres.
The spending bill also allows a logging project in Montana to go forward, despite environmentalists' concerns about its impact on the endangered Canadian lynx.
"It has been atrocious public policy to rob fire prevention funds to fight fires," noted Sen. Merkley. "Now we need to greatly increase funding to thin our forests and remove fuels from the forest floor to make our forests more resilient. That's a win-win, creating healthier forests, fire resistance, jobs, and saw logs for our mills."
"Because we currently do no project management to help protect our forests, we end up paying much more to fight costly carbon producing wildfires that again devastate our ability to do the critical forest management on our public lands in the first place," Schrader added.
Most of the Forest Service's firefighting budget is spent in California and the western United States. Some 28,000 firefighter were mustered across the West during the peak wildland fire season in 2017.