Flames Of Controversy

Senators oppose plan to budget for wildfires

This thinned buffer zone helped prevent the Wallow Fire from consuming Alpine. A plan to treat wildfires like hurricanes when it comes to funding has spurred controversy. Diversion from the Forest Service budget to cover the rising cost of fighting fires often consumes money for such thinning projects.

This thinned buffer zone helped prevent the Wallow Fire from consuming Alpine. A plan to treat wildfires like hurricanes when it comes to funding has spurred controversy. Diversion from the Forest Service budget to cover the rising cost of fighting fires often consumes money for such thinning projects.

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Arizona’s two U.S. Senators have come out against a widely hailed, bipartisan effort to fundamentally change how the federal government finances its wildfire fighting efforts.

The proposal would set up an emergency firefighting fund the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management could use when firefighting costs exceed a rolling, 10-year average. This would give the federal agencies access to extra disaster funding, which is how other federal agencies deal with things like hurricanes and earthquakes.

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Senator John McCain

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Senator Jeff Flake

Backers of SB 1875 sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) say it would stop the annual raids on other Forest Service budget categories like forest restoration and could free up an extra $412 million annually for projects like forest health and forest thinning.

However, Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain have released a letter sharply critical of the proposal, which President Barack Obama’s administration has endorsed.

The two Arizona senators agree the federal government needs a way to cover the “skyrocketing” cost of fighting wildfires, but objected to the idea of giving the Forest Service the ability to exceed the budget cap set by Congress.

They advocate increasing the money for fighting fires in the regular budget for both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management within the spending cap.

They argued that setting up the separate fund for wildfire costs would create a budget “windfall” outside the overall budget cap and would give the administration too much freedom in how to spend it. “Assuming otherwise puts an unfortunate amount of faith in an Administration.”

They noted that although the Administration has proposed a $52-million increase in money for thinning projects in the upcoming fiscal year, it also has cut thinning money in FY14 by some $190 million.

The opposition from two prominent western Senators dims prospects for an Administration initiative that had drawn rare bipartisan support and threatens to once more sink the effort in the swamp of budget disputes that has immobilized Congress for several years.

Advocates for applying the disaster-funding model used for hurricanes and other natural disasters hoped to end the increasingly common practice of shifting money from things like forest thinning projects into the fire fighting budget – and hoping to shuffle money back in the next fiscal year.

Some years ago, firefighting costs consumed about 15 percent of the Forest Service budget. Last year, fighting fires swallowed up 50 percent the agency’s budget. Since 2002, the Forest Service has had to shift money from other programs eight times to get through the end of the year as a result of a steadily rising number of giant wildfires – accounting for a total of $3.5 billion.

In the past decade, wildfires have burned 57 percent more land than in the previous four decades. Nine of the 10 largest wildfires in Arizona history have taken place in the past 10 years. Fire experts blame both a record-breaking drought and the overgrown condition of the forest after a century of grazing and fire suppression.

Between 1991 and 1999, the Forest Service and the Interior Department spent an average of $1.4 billion fighting fires, in inflation-adjusted dollars. But between 2002 and 2012, the average jumped to $3.5 billion annually.

Climate models predict that a steady rise in average temperatures linked to the buildup of heat trapping gasses in the atmosphere will result in a 50 percent increase in wildfires nationwide and a 100 percent increase in western states by 2050.

The existing Forest Service budget formula for the firefighting budget sets aside a rolling, 10-year average for fighting fires. But the cost and size of fires has grown so rapidly that the budget has fallen $500 million to $1 billion short each year. The new formula would set aside roughly 30 percent of that rolling average firefighting cost in a separate fund, to cover the big bills for the largest fires. About 1 percent of the fires account for 30 percent of all firefighting costs.

Wyden said that the current practice of constantly taking money from other Forest Service accounts – like money for the kinds of thinning projects that have created a buffer zone around many Rim Country communities – amounts to “fire robbery” since money shifted from prevention budgets often never gets replenished.

A coalition of 160 conservation, timber, tribal, recreation, sportsmen, ranching and employer groups signed a letter urging Congress to support the bill. An identical version has been introduced in the House, sponsored by Representatives Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon).

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