Congress last week fattened the Forest Service firefighting budget for the coming year, but objections raised by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Maria Cantwell helped scuttle efforts to craft a long-term fix to funding the agency.
Congress last week fattened the Forest Service firefighting budget for the coming year, but objections raised by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., helped scuttle efforts to craft a long-term fix to funding the agency in an era of massive blazes.
The $1.6 billion budget is a 50 percent boost over the amount Congress approved for 2015, when the Forest Service — faced with the most expensive fire season in history — had to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from other program accounts to pay for firefighting crews and equipment.
The escalating annual spending has helped fuel debate over how fires are fought, and concerns about the impacts of financing that work on other Forest Service programs such as recreation and forest restoration.
The debate intensified this year, a record-setting fire season in Washington that also saw major blazes in many other states. As the year winds down, the share of the Forest Service budget devoted to fire spending topped 60 percent. That compares with to just 16 percent in 1995.
“This directly impacts the Forest Service’s ability to fund other critical work such as restoration that can reduce wildfire threat, drinking water area protection, and recreation investments,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter sent Thursday to some members of Congress.
While there has been broad agreement about the need for overhauling the funding process, it has been much harder to reach a consensus on how that should happen.
Murkowski, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Cantwell, ranking minority leader on the panel, helped push for the big boost for next year’s firefighting budget. But they balked at a proposal from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. to reshape the budgeting process that initially was included in the spending bill.
Wyden’s proposal would have authorized the Forest Service to tap into federal disaster funds to help pay for fighting wildfires once the agency had spent 70 percent of its appropriated fire budget.
Wyden’s proposal had been developed through weeks of negotiations with House Republicans and gained strong backing from the Forest Service, as well as considerable bipartisan support in Congress.
Wyden said the compromise proposal “would have fixed fire borrowing, stopped the continued erosion of the Forest Service budget” and increased the ability of the agency to to work on fire prevention.
But Murkowski and Cantwell believed the proposal was not as well crafted as earlier bills to rework fire budgeting.
And, as Wyden’s proposal circulated last week, it stirred some backlash.
Cantwell received an email from the International Association of Fire Chiefs expressing concern about enabling federal wildfire suppression to be funded from a disaster-relief fund that has traditionally been reserved for catastrophic events as earthquakes and tornadoes.
Other critics thought the new funding mechanism would do little to spur a more selective approach to firefighting, such as allowing more backcountry burns that could contribute to forest renewal.
While the Nature Conservancy supported Wyden’s measure, some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, opposed some legislative language they said would promote ill-conceived logging.
Cantwell, in a statement released to The Seattle Times, echoed these concerns. She said “the public deserves a transparent legislative process” rather than what she termed “clear-cutting riders negotiated with the timber industry behind closed doors. ““We want effective solutions that ensure our communities have the tools and resources they need to fight fires,” Cantwell said.
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Obama administration officials disputed that Wyden’s proposal would have opened the door to significantly more logging. They viewed it as a major step forward in the Forest Service budget, and were frustrated by its exclusion from the spending bill.
“The omnibus fails to provide a long-term solution to address the critical and growing problem of paying for catastrophic wildfire and instead leaves the Forest Service hobbled by the current untenable budget situation,” Vilsack wrote in his letter last week.
In that letter, Vilsack said he would no longer transfer money from other programs to help finance firefighting if he runs short next year. Instead, Vilsack said he will go to Congress and ask for additional money to fight the fires.
Next year, the struggle over wildfire funding is expected to resume.
Murkowski, Cantwell and Wyden all say that will go back to work on the issue.