The new John Deere 748L skidderAs Wildfires Rage, Congress Continues to Blow Hot Air

By Lindsay Mohlere

It’s fire season, and several major wildfires rage across the West while Congress continues to sit on their thumbs and bellow hot air when it comes to finding a fix for fire suppression funding.

The basic problem is called “fire borrowing,” a euphemism for “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Every year, the Forest Service budgets for wildfires at the 10-year average cost. When that budget has been used up, fixed budgetary funds for forest management, fire prevention, and forest health get tapped to pay for fire suppression. Last year more than 56 percent of the Forest Service budget was spent on fighting wildfires, up from 16 percent in 1995.

This year’s budget is $5.6 billion, of which $3.2 billion will go to fire suppression.

The Funding Fix Smolders

Most in Congress agree that fire borrowing pulls the rug out from under Forest Service projects designed to prevent wildfires and keep our forests healthy. It puts the brakes on forest health projects like thinning, salvage, fuels reduction, and disease and pest control. Recreational projects, as well as fish and wildlife management also suffer because the money is used to fight fires.

Most congressional representatives agree that this practice should end. That’s where progress comes to a screeching halt. They can’t agree on how to do it.

No big surprise there.

Every year since 2012, when Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID) began pushing legislation aimed at addressing the problem, there have been several attempts to solve it. Most are buried in one committee or another and are gathering dust.

Last year, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015 (H.R. 167) was introduced by Simpson and then referred to the Subcommittee on Federal Lands. Senate bill S. 235 with the same name, was introduced by senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) and sent to languish in the Committee on the Budget.

So far, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (H.R. 2647) is the only bill that has seen a vote. It passed the House a year ago and was referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. It, too, has not seen the light of day again.

Western Pols Take Another Shot

In May of this year, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) tried again and introduced bipartisan draft legislation called the Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act for public discussion. It funds the Forest Service at 100 percent of the 10-year average and enables a transfer of limited funds to the Forest Service to pay for the most devastating fires out of an emergency fund when the fixed budget for fire suppression has been exhausted. It also streamlines the process and advocates the use of leftover funds from light fire years to go to fire prevention programs like fuel reduction, salvage, and thinning.

Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have also signed the bill, saying it’s not the complete solution but a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, several environmental groups vehemently oppose most of these bills. They argue the solutions do little to solve the funding issue and will severely damage the National Environmental Policy Act by limiting public and environmental review of certain fuel reduction and forestry projects.

The groups place the blame on the only industry that can really make a difference in protecting our forests... the Timber Industry. No big surprise there either.

According to the John Muir Project, the act would, “dramatically increase logging (yes, including clear cutting) on National Forests and other public lands while simultaneously eliminating environmental protections for our western forests.  Trying to capitalize on the fear stemming from last summer’s fires in the Pacific Northwest, these senators demonize fire, a natural process essential to the survival of native plant and animal biodiversity, in order to gift away our public forests to the timber industry at great expense to taxpayers.”

Government Hocus Pocus Versus Common Sense

The Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act makes a lot of sense. So do the other bills that are buried in committees and prevented from going anywhere but down the drain because of a few misguided senators and representatives. Each one has a solution for funding wildfires and managing our forests.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), 2015 was one of the worst fire seasons on record with more than 10.1 million acres torched in over 68,000 incidents.

So far, 2016 doesn’t look much better with over a million acres already up in smoke.

This fire funding nonsense has gone on too long. Right now, more than 82 million acres in the National Forest System are in need of immediate critical care. California alone has more than 66 million dead trees.

Congress needs to get this straight, and they need to do it now.

What’s Burning NOW!

Here are the large Northwest fires as of August 15, 2016:

  • Pioneer Fire: 80,370 acres – Cause unknown – 8 miles north of Idaho City in the Boise National Forest. Level 2 Evacuation for Lowman, Ida. area. Fuels: Timber (grass and understory) Level 2 evacuations in place for Lowman, Idaho. 50% Contained.
    There’s 1766 personnel assigned, including 47 hand crews, 12 helicopters, 55 engines, 11 dozers, 29 water tenders, 7 masticators and 1 skidder.
  • Rail Fire: 16,288 acres – Unknown Cause – Wallowa-Whitman National Forest 5 miles west of Unity OR. Fuels: Bug-killed lodge pole pine, standing and down. 12% Contained.
  • Juntura Complex: 24,300 acres – Lightening – Complex is made up of three wildfires burning near the Malheur River between Vale and Burns Oregon. 85% Contained.
  • Roaring Lion Fire: 8,274 acres – Unknown cause, under investigation – Burning 5 miles SW of Hamilton, Mt. Fuels: Timber (grass and understory). 70% Contained.

Currently, there have been 36,421 fires to date this year, torching over 3.5 million acres.

(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC)

That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there!

L. R. Mohlere

TWfirecolumn@gmail.com

TimberWest November/December 2013
July/August 2016

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