The U.S. Forest Service budget will be front and center this week before the Senate Appropriations Committee with the 2008 fire season already underway. The U.S. Forest Service has requested nearly $2 billion for wildland fire suppression in fiscal 2009, and Congress is concerned about whether that amount will even be sufficient to meet fire needs.
Across the United States more than nine million acres burned last year. There is little doubt that 2008 will be any different with climate change and drought creating long and more intense fire seasons. To make matters worse, in recent years, federal land management agencies have overspent their budgets for fire suppression and sought emergency funding from Congress.
The focus in Washington is shifting and legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would change the way U.S. Forest Service funds for wildland firefighting are doled out.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, II (D-West Virginia) introduced H.R. 5541. That bill would create a fund the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department could draw upon to fight large catastrophic fires. It would authorize funding based on the average amount spent to fight fires for the past five fiscal years.
H.R. 5648 sponsored by Congressman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Virginia) would establish a similar emergency fires account and require independent review of expensive wildfires to ensure the Forest Service keeps costs under control.
Another idea from Congressman Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas) would be for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to take over the cost of emergency forest fires as it does for other natural disasters. Under Tiahrts concept, the Forest Service would pay for infrastructure, but the cost of putting out the fire would come from FEMAs budget.
Over in the Senate, Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) supports a provision that would direct $1.1 billion into a trust account used to fight fires. Funding would automatically go into the account each year, unlike the House bills outlined above that are subject to appropriations.
HAI will continue to monitor debate in Congress over how to pay for wildland firefighting and provide information to the industry at the conclusion of hearings on these issues.