Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain are principled conservatives — with distinguished records when it comes to the uphill battle to bring order and discipline to federal budgeting.
So their letter raising concerns about a widely-supported effort to rationalize the currently irresponsible and chaotic federal wildfire fighting budget process merits careful consideration.
Still, we hope they won’t inadvertently scuttle an essential fix for the dangerous and alarming wildfire budgeting process. Currently, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management each year budget a certain amount to fight wildfires — then frantically transfer money in a bad wildfire year. Alas: Lately all we’ve had are bad years. The cost of fighting wildfires has consistently come in far over budget. As a result, the Forest Service now spends a stunning half of its budget fighting wildfires.
All too often, the Forest Service has transferred money out of the budget for things like tree-thinning and forest restoration projects to cope with the more immediate disaster of a half-million-acre megafire. The shift amounts to about $3.6 billion in the past few years.
The dramatic rise in firefighting costs stems from an intersection of a seemingly endless drought and a century of forest mismanagement. Overgrazing, clear cutting and mindless fire suppression have created a badly overgrown, dangerously unhealthy forest.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers backed by a broad coalition of both timber and conservation groups have united behind a plan to put wildfire funding on the same basis as natural disasters like hurricanes. The proposal would create a reserve fund outside of the normal agency-by-agency spending caps set by Congress. The establishment of the emergency funding should enable the Forest Service to react to the very expensive megafires like the Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski, which account for just 1 percent of the wildfires but 30 percent of the firefighting costs.
Senators Flake and McCain raise reasonable concerns about the possible abuse of such an essentially off-budget disaster slush fund. Both senators waged a long, hard, principled fight against the once runaway process of “earmarking.” They have both fought hard for balanced budgets and a rational budgeting process. We understand their concerns about exceeding hard-won budget caps — and their qualms about how the Forest Service might ultimately spend the money.
So we hope the drafters of the proposed legislation can answer those concerns and improve the bill. But we also hope our senators don’t use their considerable influence and expertise to damage the prospects for wildfire budget reform. As Voltaire reportedly observed: “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.”