December 16, 2015

Wyden, Crapo, Merkley and Risch: Spending Bill Boosts Wildfire Funds, But Much More Work to Do

Year-End Bill Reduces Risks of Damaging Fire Transfers; Senators Disappointed In Lack of Long-Term Solution

Washington, D.C. –A bipartisan group of Oregon and Idaho senators praised congressional leaders for boosting wildfire funding in a year-end spending bill, and vowed to continue pushing for a long-term solution.

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, joined with Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch to renew their call for a long-term solution to wildfire funding. The bill directly funds firefighting at 100 percent of the 10-year average of firefighting costs. Additionally, it contains nearly $600 million in rollover reserve funds that can be used in the event of a catastrophic fire season, which will reduce the severity of “fire borrowing” by the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department. However, it lacks a long-term solution, and does little to free up new funding for fire prevention or hold down-long term firefighting costs.

This year’s spending bill is a real improvement over the status quo, but there is far, far more to do to protect communities in Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho and across the United States that are threatened by wildfire every year. I’m proud to stand with Senators Crapo, Merkley, Risch and a strong bipartisan coalition in the House and Senate to work toward a long-term solution to this problem. It’s disappointing a small number of members blocked that solution this year, but we’ll keep fighting until we get it over the finish line,” Wyden said.

“It is positive to see this the year-end spending measure includes an increase in funding for wildfire suppression. This will provide our wildland firefighters with the certainty they need  to plan and allocate resources appropriately,” said Crapo. “However, I consider such funding to be a first-step in what must be a long-term solution to fighting wildfires each year.  As disaster-level fires and the resulting damages grow each year, government agencies cannot bankrupt themselves by continually taking funds from other priorities to fight fires.  Moreover, Congress’ near-yearly passage of off-budget emergency funding measures to cover funding for our worst wildfires is both irresponsible and harmful to agency budgets.  I look forward to working with my colleagues next year to identify and pass a long-term, fiscally-responsible funding solution to this problem that affects so many states.”

“This bill marks an enormous improvement over past years when we have dramatically underfunded fighting wildfires,” said Merkley. “I’ve been pleased to fight for firefighting funding in this spending bill to advance the bipartisan vision Senator Wyden has advocated for so effectively in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Now, we need a long-term solution that funds fighting massive wildfires like we fund other disasters, ensuring we no longer have to shut down other Forest Service programs to fund firefighting in bad fire years.”

“Although many of my eastern colleagues do not fully appreciate the situation, wildfires continue to wreak havoc in the western part of our country and this continuing threat is very real,” said Risch. “This additional $600 million in funding is a good thing, but we are still missing a long-term solution to the ever-increasing need for funds to prevent and battle fires.”

Wyden and Crapo, along with Merkley, Risch and a strong bipartisan coalition, have pushed to fix wildfire funding since the introduced the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act in 2013, The bill treats the largest and most destructive wildfires as the natural disasters by allowing agencies to use funding from a disaster funding account similar to the one used to pay for hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. The Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior estimate the largest one percent of fires account for 30 percent of fire budget costs.

In addition, several of those members came together this fall to forge a compromise proposal that would have fixed fire borrowing, stopped the continued erosion of the Forest Service budget, and increased the capacity of the Forest Service to accomplish fire prevention projects, thereby reducing wildfire risks and fire suppression costs.  In addition to these important fire-related fixes, the compromise included limited additions to federal forested land management authorities intended to bolster the position of forest collaboratives and empower those looking for solutions to forest health and environmental issues in our eastern as well as western forests.  This working group was made of Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate.