USA — Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has asked appropriators to consider including his wildfire funding bill in their fiscal 2014 spending package.
The bill, introduced in late December by Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), seeks to prevent the Forest Service and Interior Department from having to raid other accounts to make up for shortfalls in wildfire funding.
So-called fire borrowing has happened seven times out of the past 12 years, causing significant disruptions in the Forest Service’s stewardship activities and, at times, setting it back in its ability to prevent future wildfires (Greenwire, Oct. 30, 2013).
The agency in August announced it would have to borrow more than $500 million to battle costly blazes.
Appropriators are currently in negotiations over how to allocate $1.012 trillion in discretionary funding for the remainder of the fiscal year. A Senate appropriations aide said members hope to arrive at an agreement later this week on an overall bill.
Federal funding expires on Jan. 15, and lawmakers are hoping to pass an omnibus appropriations bill before adjourning Jan. 17 for recess.
A Senate Democratic aide said Wyden’s pitch to appropriators was well received, though it’s unclear whether the language will be included in the bill.
Wyden’s S. 1875 is backed strongly by a coalition of conservationists, logging groups and other forest users, which sent its own pair of letters to House and Senate appropriators Dec. 19 urging them to include the wildfire language in their 2014 bill.
While the wildfire bill has no other co-sponsors, several lawmakers of both parties have expressed frustration over the recurring funding shortages for wildfire, directing much of their blame at the White House for requesting too little cash.
Wyden last month said his bill would immediately free up to $412 million in discretionary funds to be spent on activities including hazardous fuels removals.
A Forest Service and Interior analysis found that 1 percent of fires account for 30 percent of the cost, according to Wyden’s office.
The Wyden-Crapo bill would move any fire suppression spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average to a separate disaster account. A Wyden spokeswoman said the Congressional Budget Office has not analyzed the bill.
“Congress needs to fund the biggest, most catastrophic wildfires like the natural disasters they are, and free up funding to break the destructive cycle that underfunds fire prevention and shorts fire management,” Wyden said last month. “This bill ends that cycle, puts money back into prevention and provides the resources agencies need to effectively protect rural communities and forests.”
Obama administration officials have not weighed in on the bill, but over the past year they have proposed that some efforts to combat wildfires be funded with emergency dollars, similarly to hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes.
“We’ve got to stop treating forest fire like a normal appropriated expense and start treating it more like the disaster that it in fact is,” said Robert Bonnie, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment, at a Western Governors’ Association meeting last month in Las Vegas.
Cecilia Clavet, a senior policy adviser at the Nature Conservancy, a key backer of the Wyden-Crapo bill, said there has been little time to educate members on the proposal ahead of the deadline for an omnibus bill.
She said she’s hopeful a companion bill will be introduced in the House.