Lawmakers, stakeholders talk about changing wildfire funding

Lawmakers, stakeholders talk about changing wildfire funding

05 November 2013

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USA — Senators held a hearing Tuesday about changing the way the country pays for and manages forests across the country, including in Idaho.

A Senate subcommittee held a hearing called, “Shortchanging Our Forests: How Tight Budgets and Management Decisions Can Increase the Risk of Wildfire.” Everyone there said they need to stop a vicious cycle that’s hurting people and forests across the country.

“This mindless across the board stuff just not allowing us to set our priorities,” said subcommittee chair Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

While the U.S. Forest Service’s budget has been cut, their deputy chief agrees that the real budget issue is less about how much money there is and more about where it’s spent. Jim Hubbard says there are 58 million acres in the national forests at risk for catastrophic wildfire, some of that’s in Idaho. But, with their current funding, they can only treat 2 million of that per year.

“At the current levels, the Forest Service does not stay within its budget, so we have to transfer money from other programs,” said Hubbard.

He adds that as fires in Idaho and across the country get worse, more money is spent on firefighting. But firefighting funds have to be taken from fire suppression programs.

“This is a vicious cycle,” said Tom Troxel, Executive Director of the Intermountain Forest Association. “The more the Forest Service has to spend fighting fires, the more fires there will be in the future.”

Everyone at the hearing, which included the Forest Service, timber industry, conservationists, Democrats and Republicans, agreed the funding problem results in bigger and more dangerous fires. But what’s the answer?

“I think this is really the time, like you’ve all said, for us to make a big step up and a sizable change in investment,” said Dr. Chris Topik of the Nature Conservancy. “We need to create a separate wildland fire disaster suppression fund.”

But more funding, or even sustained funding in different places, could be hard to find as budget battles rage on in Congress. That’s even though many agree money spent on suppression could save money on firefighting in the future.

“These dollars spent, would actually mean that we’d spend less on the back end,” said Bennet.

Those in the hearing say streamlining the permitting process for logging companies will also help in forest management.

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