Senators McCain, Flake Reintroduce Legislation to Address Wildfire Suppression

Senators McCain, Flake Reintroduce Legislation to Address Wildfire Suppression

14 February 2015

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 USA — U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), John Barrasso (R-WY), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) this week reintroduced theFLAME Act Amendments of 2015, legislation that would allow for the full funding of wildland firefighting budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior, and dramatically increase resources for forest restoration programs. “Congress must fully fund our fire suppression needs, but to reduce wildfire costs over time we must also thin our fire-prone forests,” said Senator McCain.

“There are similar proposals in Congress that support fire suppression spending, but they don’t as clearly guarantee funding for forest treatment programs, put an end to fire-borrowing, or promote the utility of private timber industry as this legislation does. We need to end the current practice of throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at wildfires year after year and begin to aggressively manage our forests.”

“It’s crucial that our federal, state and local agencies have all the resources they need to fight fires and ultimately save lives, homes and property across Wyoming and the West,” said Senator Barrasso. “We also must end the unsustainable practice of ‘fire-borrowing’ and prioritize funding for active management activities that will help prevent large scale forest fires in the future. Our bill gives land managers the tools and resources they desperately need to invest in hazardous fuels reduction and disease treatment projects. This will go a long way in preventing forest fires and saving taxpayer dollars.”

“This bill aims to get ahead of the massive wildfire threat that plagues communities throughout the country by making fire suppression and proactive forest management priorities,” said Senator Flake. “Enacting this measure would prohibit the crippling practice of fire borrowing, while responsibly budgeting for wildfire management at levels commensurate with the size of the problem.”

Rather than budgeting for wildfires using just 70 percent of a 10-year historic average of suppression expenditures as the Obama Administration proposed in its Fiscal Year 2015 budget request, this bill requires the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to budget for 100 percent of their suppression costs using the most accurate budget forecast model available (known as the “FLAME regression model”).

 The bill also would prohibit federal agencies from raiding non-wildfire accounts to pay for wildfires, a practice known as “fire-borrowing.” While the Administration’s proposal would allow wildfire spending to automatically exceed statutory budget caps on disaster funding, this legislation would establish a limited process for accessing emergency funds in the event of a catastrophic wildfire, while investing aggressively in suppression and forest management programs. Finally, this bill would establish a streamlined environmental review process to expedite forest treatment projects across 7.5 million acres of federal land and promote the use of private industry under forest stewardship contracts. (See also:S. 1966,National Forest Jobs Management Act of 2014by Senator Barrasso as introduced in the 113thCongress andS. 326,Stewardship Contracting Reauthorization and Improvement Actby Senator Flake as introduced in the 114thCongress).

 If this bill had been enacted for Fiscal Year 2015, the Forest Service could have had on hand approximately $1.5 billion that the agency predicts is needed this year to suppress wildfires compared to the $1.01 billion appropriated by Congress. The Forest Service would also be allowed to access up to $1 billion in emergency spending while dedicating at least $750 million for hazardous fuel management under theHealthy Forest Restoration Act, landscape-scale forest restoration, addressing insect infested areas, and promoting timber projects on Indian reservations. SUMMARY OF McCAIN-BARRASSO-FLAKE WILDFIRE BILL Prohibits Forest Service and the Interior Department from “fire-borrowing” from all accounts not connected to wildfire management. Requires FS/DOI to use the best available budget forecast model to plan its wildfire season and fully fund its suppression operations at 100 percent. Currently, FS uses a 10-year historic average of past wildfire spending to predict its future needs, which isn’t keeping pace with the increase in size and cost of wildfires.

Establishes a narrowly tailored process to access emergency funds in the event of a catastrophic wildfire that exhausts suppression accounts, but also requires Appropriators to invest in hazardous fuels reduction projects and insect disease treatment projects. In order to access this emergency process for catastrophic wildfires, two things must happen: (1) 100 percent of the suppression needs must be funded; and (2) a number equal to 50 percent of the suppression costs must go to hazardous fuel reduction projects like those authorized under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003, the Tribal Forests Protection Act, and landscape scale forest restoration.

Incentivizes more funding to the HFRA (which is authorized at $760 million a year) to prevent future wildfires near rural communities and bring down forest suppression costs over the long term. Requires Forest Service to treat 7.5 million acres of federal land designated as “Forest Management Emphasis Areas” within 15 years under an expedited environmental review process. Promotes the use of private industry to help the Forest Service to thin our forests by enhancing existing forest stewardship contracting law.

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