USA — Year after year Congress promises to beef up wildfire-prevention programs but doesn’t follow through with enough money, frustrated lawmakers and advocates say.
Many Democratic and Republican lawmakers, especially from out West, agree that Congress should spend more on preventive steps like thinning forests, clearing excess brush and performing controlled burns before the wildfire season heats up. Such efforts will minimize the destructive potential of fires and make it easier to control the blazes during the hot, dry summers the country is seeing of late, advocates say.
But come budget time, fire-prevention programs run by the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department invariably get underfunded, advocates say, though wildfires are getting bigger, more destructive and costlier to control.
Critics point to several reasons for this trend: Automatic spending cuts required under the “budget sequestration” process, deepening partisanship and gridlock, and a breakdown in the normal budgetary process that has kept Congress from passing individual appropriations bills for government agencies.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said wildfires are also not a big deal for some non-Western lawmakers.
“Sometimes people see this as a regional issue,” said Bennet, who heads the Senate Agriculture Committee’s forestry and natural resources subcommittee. “I think it’s sometimes hard for people to understand on the coasts what the world looks like in the middle of the country.”
“I . . . certainly have a very strong sense of urgency about this based on what the people of Colorado have gone through,” Bennet said after he chaired a wildfires hearing this month. “And we believe that the rest of the country ought to care about this.”
A recent study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office showed that every dollar spent on prevention saves $5 in fire damages.
Jim Hubbard, the Forest Service’s deputy chief, testified at Bennet’s hearing that 58 million acres controlled by his agency had a high fire risk last year. But the Forest Service could afford to do tree-clearing and other preventive work on just 2 million acres.
Bennet said he and some other members negotiating a new farm bill are looking for ways to boost funding for fire prevention in that legislation.
The White House has also come under fire for neglecting prevention programs.
Earlier this year, a chorus of lawmakers on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — including Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and ranking Republican Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, — scolded the Obama administration’s 2014 budget request for shortchanging the fire-suppression programs. Wyden called it “baffling.”
Chris Topik, a forestry expert at The Nature Conservancy, said Congress needs to double the “hazardous fuels reduction” program — which pays for forest thinning — to $1 billion. The program could function effectively with about half that, he said. The Obama administration sought $296 million for fiscal 2014.
The administration estimates it needs nearly $1.38 billion in fiscal 2014 to fight wildfires. Congress provided $1.16 million for the 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Advocacy groups say Congress also has a poor track record of funding programs like hazardous fuel reduction.
For example, Congress increased the firefighting budget by 57 percent from 2000-2003 but increased the prevention budget by a relatively modest 4 percent in that time, according to Lynn Jungwirth, a fellow at The Watershed Center in Hayfork, Calif.
Topik said prevention programs need the backing of one or a few powerful lawmakers. In the early 2000s their champion was now-retired Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who served for 36 years and was chairman of the budget and energy and natural resources committees, he said.
Powerful supporters do exist in the current Congress, though they haven’t been as vocal as Domenici, Topik said. He named as examples Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, who heads a House Appropriations subcommittee that sets funding levels for the Interior Department.
“These people just need to step up,” Topik said. “If you’ve got a couple of people to champion this . . . it’s quite doable.”