Forest fires have become a wildcard in the global-warming game

Wildfire funding bill passes U.S. House

1 April 2009

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USA — Legislation seeks to ensure consistent funding during catastrophic fire years.

Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson had money lined up to begin several trail reconstruction projects last summer. He was ready to go when the call came to hold up.

Nationwide, forest managers were told to begin pinching pennies. For Nelson that meant money intended to rehabilitate portions of the Sawtooth National Forest that had burned in 2007 during the 48,520-acre Castle Rock Fire.

No such luck. Instead, he put on hold 12 miles of trail work planned for the blackened lengths of Warfield Creek, Red Warrior Creek and Eve’s Gulch west of Ketchum.

Why? In northern California, runaway wildfires burning through thousands of acres of forest were quickly draining a large pool of funding set aside by Congress for the U.S. Forest Service’s annual firefighting activities. Though $1.2 billion had been budgeted to combat fires during 2008, that number had climbed to $1.6 billion by mid-August.

The rest of the agency was told to tighten its belt to make up the difference. It didn’t matter that Idaho and the rest of the northern Rockies had a relatively calm fire season—national priorities took precedence.

“The agency had to look at what resources it had,” Nelson said. “That wasn’t unique to this particular project.”

Congress is now considering legislation that would ensure a consistent source of funding that federal land managers could dip into during catastrophic fire years and prevent situations like what happened last summer on the Ketchum district. Called the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act, the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives last Wednesday by a vote of 412 to 3.

The U.S. Senate will consider the legislation next.

Forest Service land managers must follow a set protocol whenever large wildfires burn through federal money. District managers have a certain amount they’re authorized to spend on big fires before they have to turn to forest supervisors to authorize additional spending. Once that amount is exhausted, funding decisions fall on the desk of regional supervisors and, finally, to the chief of the Forest Service.

According to Nelson, large wildfires—those blazes whose suppression costs at least $10 million or more—only account for less than one percent of the agency’s overall firefighting budget.

But across the country, that’s changing. More and larger wildfires as well as significantly longer wildfire seasons are challenging the Forest Service.

Just 10 years ago, wildfire suppression costs made up about 12 percent of the agency’s overall budget. Now, that figure has made a startling jump to nearly 50 percent, Nelson said.

Congress aims to address this growing problem with the FLAME Act.

Voting in favor of the bill were Idaho’s two House members, Republican Mike Simpson and Democrat Walt Minnick. Simpson, a member of the House Interior and Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, is an original cosponsor of the legislation, a news release from his office states.

“The way we are currently funding wildfire fighting is counterproductive, to say the least,” Simpson said. “Each year, the need to fund fire suppression overshadows the need to fund fuel reduction, healthy forest management and other efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. At the end of the day, we are spending more money, sacrificing more acres of land and risking more property and lives without ever getting ahead of the curve.”

According to Simpson’s office, the number of acres burned by wildland fires has increased by 70 percent over the past decade.

The FLAME Act would provide a separate, dedicated fund for emergency catastrophic wildfire suppression so the Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies will not be forced to rob from land management accounts to pay for wildfire suppression. It also requires the departments of Agriculture and Interior to provide Congress with a cohesive strategy for managing wildland fires.

Minnick, in his first term in Congress, was able to attach an amendment to the bill that seeks to help fight fires and restore forests impacted by mountain pine beetles. The former forest industry executive said he’s seen the devastation the beetles have had on forests.

Locals can attest to the extensive impacts on lodgepole and whitebark pine stands north of Ketchum in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

“This beetle is killing millions of trees out West, and the dead and dying trees they leave in their wake create the kind of fuel which feed major wildfires and put our communities at risk,” Minnick said. “My amendment directs the allocation of funding in this act to account for forest areas—not only in Idaho, but throughout the country—that have been greatly damaged by infestation of invasive insects.”

Nelson is optimistic that the planned trail work will finally take place this summer. Though the funds for the work were pulled for a time and held up at the regional forest office, they were actually never spent on the California fires and were ultimately reinstated.

Nelson said he hopes to have bids solicited and a contract awarded by summer.

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