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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.
Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s visit by the secretaries of the departments of Interior and Agriculture to NIFC, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where the two said sequestration and other federal budget cuts will hit hard just as a “difficult” fire season looms for the nation.
New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called on citizens and communities to be “fire-wise” and take steps to protect their homes, particularly those in or near the woods or wildlands, from burning in a wildfire. “We as private citizens … play an important role,” she said, “especially in these areas where we want to live, have our cabins up in the mountains, and they are oftentimes in harm’s way.” Jewell said people need to create defensible space around homes or cabins, clear brush, trees and flammable materials, and help their neighbors do the same. “I really encourage you to do that,” she said.
This year’s fire season already has seen 13,000 fires start, but that’s actually a low number – the lowest in the last 10 years. That’s mainly because there’s been ample rain and snow across the eastern United States, limiting the fires that otherwise would normally have ignited by now in the Southeast.
But this year is expected to see above-normal risk in parts of the west, particularly the southwest, due to precipitation that’s run far below normal. Southern California has gotten only a quarter of its normal precipitation so far this year. NIFC officials said the wildfire season in West Coast states is expected to start a month earlier than normal this year as a result; fires already have been burning in southern California and even in southern Idaho.
With a “difficult” fire season looming, firefighters are facing budget cuts that will result in 500 fewer firefighters for the Forest Service alone and 50 fewer engines available, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said this morning in a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “We’re going to be faced obviously with a difficult fire season, make no mistake about that,” he said. “The resources are limited. Our budgets have obviously been constrained.”
Other agencies also are facing cuts. New Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who toured NIFC yesterday and today, said, “We will fight the fires and we will do them safely, but the resources will go to suppression, which is not ideal. … What you’re not doing is putting the resources in place to thoughtfully manage the landscapes for the future.” That means things like replanting and efforts to reduce hazardous fuels will suffer. “If we have a really tough season, we … may bring in more contract resources,” Jewell said. “We’ll have to take it out of other parts of our budget which are also struggling. We may be making decisions in the short run to take care of fires but in the long run not setting ourselves up for success.”
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said if catastrophic fires are burning in August and sufficient resources aren’t available, he believes Congress would come through with emergency funding. Vilsack responded with a chuckle, “You get that down? Can you send that to me?
Vilsack said in addition to the 5 percent sequestration cut that the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture took, “Congress added on that another 2 percent.” Making those cuts this far into the fiscal year, he said, means they cut “in essence 15 percent of your remaining money.”
The wildfire season has barely begun, and already hundreds of homes have burned in Colorado and 66 homes in southern Idaho were destroyed over the weekend. The U.S. secretaries of homeland security and agriculture came to Boise on Tuesday to check in with national fire managers, after a stop in Colorado to inspect damage, and they brought a message: Get ready. The fire season spreads from south to north, and the damage already seen in the southern parts of the west will be spreading to the northern parts of the Rocky Mountain west.
"Everyone should be concerned, everybody should be preparing, preparing as best we can," said Janet Napolitano, homeland security secretary and former governor of Arizona. "It does portend to be a long, hot fire season in the West. We've had them before, we'll have them again. This one has gotten off to a particularly tough start." She urged property owners to clear combustible materials away from structures and create "defensible space" around homes. "What we saw in Colorado was … when defensible space is created, our firefighters have a much better chance of saving a home or a business," she said.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack echoed that. "We did see today a circumstance where a home was completely obliterated, and next to it there were two homes that weren't touched." Said Napolitano, "We have an opportunity now as we start seeing some rains and moisture coming into the southern part of the West, to help those in the northern part get ready." You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
PUBLIC LANDS — The Obama administration says new rules to manage nearly 200 million acres of national forests will protect watersheds and wildlife while promoting uses ranging from recreation to logging, according to story that just moved over the Associated Press wire.
The new rules, to replace guidelines thrown out by a federal court in 2009, are set to take effect in early March. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the rule change today.
Vilsack said in an interview that the rules reflect more than 300,000 comments received since a draft plan was released last year. The new rules strengthen a requirement that decisions be based on the best available science and recognize that forests are used for a variety of purposes, Vilsack said.
Read on for the rest of the AP story by Matthew Daly