More so than usual, wildland fire has been on the minds of Arizonans in recent days. As we continue to search for ways to prevent future tragedies, it is worth noting that the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are about to lose one of their most valuable tools in reducing wildfire threats.
Provided by Congress, stewardship contracting authority allows the Forest Service and BLM — in collaboration with state and local governments, tribal agencies and non-governmental organizations — to enter into long-term contracts with private companies or communities to carry out projects that can reduce the risk of wildland fire.
By thinning too-dense forests in wildfire-prone areas and generating income by selling wood products that have been removed, these projects can benefit the health of the forest, the nearby communities and the project partners.
Stewardship contracts have been particularly useful in Arizona. The Forest Service awarded the first such 10-year contract to the White Mountain Stewardship Project in 2004, and the largest contract — the Four Forest Restoration Initiative — began in 2012, with an initial agreement to treat 300,000 acres. These contracts have paved the way for critical landscape-level forest treatments.
Unless Congress acts, the authority to enter into these agreements will expire at the end of September. As Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell recently noted, more than 40 percent of the national forest system is in need of treatment. This expiration couldn’t come at a less opportune moment.
Congress should waste no time in renewing this beneficial tool.
To that end, I am pleased to be joined by Sen. John McCain in introducing S. 1300, the Stewardship Contracting Reauthorization and Improvement Act. This legislation will result in a 10-year extension of authority for federal agencies to enter into these agreements, as well as build on past experiences to make common sense improvements.
For starters, the bill gives the Forest Service and BLM flexibility when holding funds in reserve to compensate its partners in the event a contract is canceled. Typically, the government has to hold in reserve the full amount of the contract, which can be a significant investment, for the agreement’s duration, which can last up to 10 years.
This requirement can serve as an impediment to long-term contracts, precisely the type of agreement that most significantly reduces wildfire risks. Our bill solves this by giving the government flexibility in reserving those funds, while requiring that any extra value from a contract be used first to satisfy any outstanding cancellation-related liabilities.
Long-term stewardship contracting and the resulting partnerships help restore Arizona’s forests, reduce the risk of out-of-control wildfires and protect rural communities. It is my hope that Congress will act to allow these success stories to continue and ensure that this critical instrument remains in the firefighting toolbox.