Late last month, U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash,, released draft legislation aimed at improving forest management and wildfire budgeting. The bipartisan discussion draft reflects the work of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to examine and find solutions for these issues over the past two congresses. The bill uses a cap adjustment to end the practice of fire borrowing similar to the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which Wyden and Crapo first introduced in 2013.
“We need to call mega-fires what they are—disasters. This bipartisan discussion draft is an important step toward a solution for responsibly budgeting for wildfire suppression and managing our forests. Self-destructive fire borrowing has impacted all aspects of the Forest Service’s budget, resulting in less management of our forests, fewer jobs, more disease and insect infestation and the downgrading of habitat for wildlife and sportsmen. The language builds on previous legislation I have worked on with Senator Wyden aimed at ensuring we have the funding and management tools necessary to keep our forests healthy for future generations. I will continue to work with my colleagues to move this process forward in the Senate,” said Sen. Crapo.
“We need to permanently end fire borrowing so that our federal land management agencies no longer have to steal funding from other programs. This is not a partisan issue and this is not a western issue. Siphoning money from the recreation budget affects every forest in the country, not just the forest that is on fire. This discussion draft is a step in the right direction to actively manage our forests so we can thin the threat before a disaster ensues,” said Sen. Risch.
The draft Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act would:
- End the unsustainable practice of fire borrowing by enabling a transfer of limited funds to the Forest Service (USFS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) through a budget cap adjustment when all appropriated suppression funding (100 percent of the 10-year average) has been exhausted.
- Allow the agencies to invest any excess appropriated suppression funding in low-fire years in fuel reduction work to reduce the threat of wildfires in and around at-risk communities, protect high-value watersheds, and reduce wildfire suppression costs over time.
- Build on existing Healthy Forests Restoration Act authorities to focus and expedite environmental reviews by limiting the number of alternatives that need to be analyzed in certain environmental assessments and environmental impact statements for a subset of critical management actions to include: reducing hazardous fuels, installing fuel and fire breaks to keep fires small and increase firefighter effectiveness and safety, restoring forest health and resilience, and protecting key municipal water supplies and wildlife habitat.
- Incentivize collaboration by streamlining process requirements to accelerate implementation of collaboratively developed projects.
- Accelerate needed hazardous fuel reduction work in forest types most susceptible to megafires by providing alternative arrangements for project approvals.
- Require the Forest Service to carry out a comprehensive inventory of young growth in the Tongass National Forest before it finalizes any forest plan amendment to change forest management.
- Require agencies to work with states to certify firefighting aircraft, personnel, and support equipment in advance of the fire season so that needed resources are available when and where they are most needed.
- Deploy available and emerging technologies, including drones and GPS, on wildfires to increase firefighting safety and operations effectiveness while reducing costs.
- Authorize $500 million over seven years to provide assistance to at-risk communities to invest in proven programs that reduce wildfire risk, property loss, and suppression costs.