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Bloomberg BNA: Wildfires May Spur FY 2016 Funding Changes While Leaving Policy Issues for Another Day

By: Alan Kovski

The severe fire season in western U.S. forests has intensified calls for funding changes so that the U.S. Forest Service does not have to borrow money from other accounts to finish out a fiscal year of wildfire suppression.

The situation has revived the question of whether a solution can be accomplished through fiscal changes alone or whether a stepped-up level of active forest management is needed, with legal changes to reduce litigation and the time it takes to get projects approved. One possibility is a continuing resolution for fiscal year 2016 appropriations that would include a provision to halt, at least for one fiscal year, what is called “fire borrowing.”

Wait to see what gets written into a continuing resolution now being drafted, said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A continuing resolution could adopt language on wildfire suppression funding already written into the Senate appropriations bill for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, Dillon said Sept. 16.

That was a possibility, though it was not a fix of the underlying problems of forest management, said Parish Braden, a spokesman for Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“If we get jammed on just a fire-borrowing fix, we’ll be in the same fix next year,” Braden said.

Need Investments, Officials Say

A joint Sept. 15 letter from top Obama administration officials called for funding changes through adjustments in the Budget Control Act of 2011 without a mention of policy changes in terms of how forest management is to be accomplished. The administration letter essentially pinned its hopes on budgeting.

The first step need was an adjustment in spending caps under the Budget Control Act of 2011 (Pub. L. No. 113-76) to allow more spending on fire suppression, the letter said.

The second step needed was to “invest additional resources in forest and rangeland restoration and management,” the letter said.

It was signed by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan.

Need Better Policy, Bishop Says

In the House, Bishop responded the same day saying in a state: “Change the way we pay for wildfire suppression is only one small part of a much more serious land management crisis.”

Bishop pointed to the House-passed Resilient Federal Forests Act (H.R. 2647), which would streamline environmental reviews and reduce litigation. The House passed the bill July 9 (132 DEN A-15, 7/10/15).

For many Democrats and environmental activists, revisions to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) obligations and reduced use of court action would increase the risks of environmental harm and injustice.

Jewell, Vilsack and Donovan used their letter to reiterate administration opposition to the bill.

The administrate letter instead expressed support for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 167) and a bill of the same name in the Senate (S. 235) that would revise funding but not other policies.

8.5 Million Acres Burned

So far this year, wildfires have burned 8.5 million acres of forest, killed several firefighters and destroyed hundreds of homes. The pressure to jump ahead with changes to funding  may be irresistible in Congress, though it does not mean other actions will be set aside.

In the Senate, Murkowski still plans to get started on forest management changes with a hearing later this year, her spokesman said.

Like Bishop and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Murkowski has said she wants to address underlying causes of severe fires.

But Tidwell has resisted calls for NEPA changes and reduced access to courts. Where he agrees with Murkowski and Bishop is on the need for more actions such as thinning overgrown forests and reducing the presence of hazardous fuels, including dead trees.

The Forest Service has been treating about 3 million acres a year through measures such as prescribed burns and thinning projects, according to service data. The service also says there are close to 60 million acres in urgent need of treatment.  

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