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Firefighting costs continue to eat into Forest Service management budget, while disaster funding bill languishes…

A new report out today from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that costs allocated to fighting wildfires have grown from 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s overall budget in 1995 to 42 percent today. “This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement today as he released the report.

Those percentage figures don’t include so-called “fire borrowing,” he noted, in which the Forest Service borrows from other areas of its budget once it’s used up its allocated amount for firefighting but blazes are still going. Vilsack renewed his request to Congress to allow an existing disaster funds to cover firefighting costs in years when they exceed allocated amounts.

A year ago, Idaho GOP Sen. Mike Crapo and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, along with Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, gathered at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise to kick off a push to end the borrowing and instead tap disaster funds when firefighting costs balloon over allocated amounts. Their bipartisan legislation had been picking up support in both houses – Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson is among the House sponsors, along with Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon – but paradoxically suffered a setback earlier this year after President Barack Obama not only endorsed it but included it in his budget.

“That spurred some folks to be cautious about it,” said Lindsay Nothern, Crapo’s press secretary. “Honestly, it’s been kind of bottled up. It’s been affected by politics.” The House version of the bill has 131 co-sponsors, including Idaho 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador. The Senate version has 18 co-sponsors including Risch.

In the House, “Some folks are concerned about changing the spending matrix, primarily Paul Ryan, head of the budget committee,” Nothern said. “We did go out and get a CBO report that showed it is budget neutral, because we already spend disaster money on disasters such as this.”

He added, “There is support for it among leadership in both the Senate and the House, on both sides of the aisle.” But on its first attempt at passage, Nothern said, the proposal got lumped in with other issues including the president’s border proposal, and it didn’t pass. “We are hoping for a stand-alone bill, and then the only opposition we have is Ryan.” He said backers of the measure are hoping they can persuade Ryan to drop his opposition by showing it won’t spend new money.

Vilsack strongly agreed. “Bipartisan proposals to fund catastrophic fire like other natural disasters could help ensure that efforts to make forests more healthy and resilient and support local tourism economies aren’t impacted as significantly as they have been in recent years,” the secretary said. “These proposals don’t increase the deficit, they just budget smarter by allowing existing natural disaster funding to be used in cases of catastrophic wildfires.”

Nothern said there’s a slim chance the bill could be brought up in the September session, but it’s more likely that it won’t get considered until the “lame-duck” session that follows the November election. He’s confident, though, that it will pass. “It’s a question of when,” Nothern said. “We’re out of money again this year. It shows the need to do this.”

The new USDA report shows that staffing for managing national Forest Service lands has dropped by 35 percent since 1998, while fire staffing has increased 110 percent. Even before fire borrowing is taken into account, funding to support recreation has dropped 13 percent; funding for wildlife and fisheries habitat management is down 17 percent; and research funding is down by more than $36 million. Funding for maintenance and capital improvements has been cut by two-thirds since 2001, showing the impact of the shift of resources to wildfire suppression. The full report is online here.

Senators say nation’s wildfire prevention system needs ‘bold reforms’

Idaho's two GOP senators joined with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden today to launch a new bipartisan push to use the fall budget negotiations in Congress to reform the way the nation funds wildfire prevention. “In my view, the fires that are ripping their way through Oregon, Idaho, California and much of the West are proof that the federal government’s policy for fire prevention is broken,” Wyden declared in a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. That’s because it taps fire prevention funds to fight raging fires, landing the nation in a vicious circle as it does less prevention, he said.

“And I say that given the heroic efforts that have been made by our firefighters,” Wyden said. “The reality is simple: For western members of Congress in the House and the Senate, there is no higher priority this fall than fixing this broken system.”

Wyden is the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, on which Risch also serves; Crapo and Wyden both serve on the budget committee. Wyden quipped that 3 percent of the U.S. Senate is already on board with the new push – the three of them – and said they’ve also gotten enthusiastic  support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been working to make sure the Forest Service is first in line for seven tanker plans that should become available from the military this month to boost firefighting efforts.

Wyden said there’s “no better time to bring about these changes than this fall,” as Congress grapples with the budget sequester, the need to raise the debt ceiling and the end of the fiscal year. “This brings front and center the debate about what our priorities are and what our choices are,” he said; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.