March 22, 2018

Bipartisan Efforts Secure Fire Funding Provisions

WASHINGTON – Federal agencies struggling to combat record-breaking wildfires using current budgeting guidelines will receive relief thanks to a provision in a government funding bill introduced last evening.  

Securing this legislative proposal is the result of  bipartisan, bicameral efforts undertaken by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon),  Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Jim Risch (R-Idaho),  and Idaho Congressmen Mike Simpson (R-Idaho-2) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR-5) in response to concerns involving the escalating costs of fighting wildfires have not been matched by agency budgets in recent years.  This has required disruptive fiscal maneuvers to take from unrelated agency programs, including habitat restoration, protection and other priorities to protect the health of our national forests.

Under outdated practices, federal agencies currently base wildland fire suppression budgets on the average costs of the prior 10 years, which is often divergent from the actual cost of fighting fires.

Unlike the response to other natural disasters which can draw from an emergency fund, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management must operate within their appropriated budgets or divert money from other important initiatives.  The reforms included in this legislation will allow agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, to better plan for wildland fires and devote the resources necessary to combat them.

In addition to the work done by the members of the Senate, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, was a leader in advancing this measure through the House and worked to secure its inclusion in today's proposed funding measure.  

Joining Congressman Simpson in his bipartisan efforts was Congressman Kurt Schrader, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"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. "For years, Sen. Crapo and I, along with a core group of bipartisan members in the House and hundreds of supporters across the country, fought to fix this problem that threatens western communities every year. This long-overdue, bipartisan solution to the madness of 'fire borrowing' will at last treat these infernos like the natural disasters they are, with the benefit that millions of dollars will now be liberated each year for essential wildfire prevention."

"It has been atrocious public policy to rob fire prevention funds to fight fires. This bill fixes that by treating bad fire years as the natural disasters they are, and funding the fight from a disaster fund. 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," said Merkley.

“This long-overdue provision will enable agencies to fight forest fires like the disasters they truly are and stop the debilitating practice of fire borrowing,” said Crapo.  “Unlike fighting other natural disasters, federal agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management often find predictions for wildland firefighting costs far underestimate actual expenditures, necessitating diversions of funds from important tasks like habitat protection and trail maintenance.  We must help cash-strapped agencies from being forced to choose between saving lives and keeping our lands publicly-accessible.  In addition to my colleagues in the Senate, I thank my home state colleague, Mike Simpson, for his efforts and leadership in securing House support for this provision that will benefit Idaho and numerous states across the nation.” 

“Those of us from the West who experience the catastrophic destruction caused by wildfires understand the importance of having adequate funding to better prevent and combat these fires. I’m grateful that our concerns are being addressed," said Risch.

“I am thrilled this Omnibus provides a solution to fire borrowing. It has been my top legislative priority for years and by including this in the Omnibus, the Forest Service will be able to complete their maintenance and prevention work without fear of losing those dollars to suppression," said Simpson. "It is long past due that wildfires in the west receive equal treatment with other natural disasters and this bill delivers the necessary budget changes to stop the dangerous practice of fire-borrowing that has led to catastrophic wildfires in Idaho and throughout the west. I would like to thank Chairman Calvert and his counterparts on Interior Appropriations for prioritizing these important provisions.”

 “The inclusion of our legislation to fix the current broken system for wildfire funding is excellent news for Oregon and all of our western states,” said Schrader. “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. By budgeting instead to address the mismanagement of our forests we are going to free up financial resources. The inclusion of our legislation to fix this root problem is a big step forward for Oregon and will ultimately save taxpayers money. I’m very glad to see the fires we face across the west every year are being treated similarly to other natural disaster.”

The funding measure is expected to clear the House and then be considered by the Senate before government funding expires on March 23.