Senators again aeek wildfire funding reforms

Senators again aeek wildfire funding reforms

03 March 2015

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USA — Arizona’s two U.S. Senators have once again teamed up to introduce a bill to increase wildfire fighting funds along with money for forest restoration projects needed to prevent community-consuming megafires.

The FLAME Act Amendments of 2015 would require the federal government to increase the budget for fighting wildfires from about $1 billion to about $1.5 billion. It would also require the federal government to spend about half that much on forest thinning and restoration projects, while streamlining the approval process for such projects.

Congress must fully fund our fire suppression needs, but to reduce wildfire costs over time we must also thin our fire-prone forests,” said Sen. John McCain, who tried unsuccessfully to push a similar bill through last year.

This bill aims to get ahead of he massive wildfire threat that plagues communities throughout the country by making fire suppression and proactive forest management priorities,” said Sen. Jeff Flake.

The bill takes aim at a chaotic budgeting system that each year forces the U.S. Forest Service to strip money away from existing projects to cover the mounting cost of fighting wildfires. Congress generally replaces the diverted money eventually, but it can wreak havoc with Forest Service budgets and unhinge the budget planning process.

For instance, one Forest Service report on the budgetary effects of the so-called “fire borrowing” approach to budgeting pointed out that the process in Arizona forced the agency to delay an agreement to thin the forests around Flagstaff and put off some projects planned for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in 2013.

In 2012, projects canceled or postponed included projects to improve safety and decrease erosion on roads in the Tonto National Forest, projects to protect the Chiricahua leopard frog in the Coronado National Forest, a $20,000 water rights project in the Tonto National Forest, facilities maintenance to prevent the risk of the hantavirus in the Sierra Ancha Experimental Forest and fuels treatment projects to reduce fire risk and protect habitat for the endangered goshawk and Chiricahua leopard frog in the Verde River watershed.

The bill would require the president’s administration to base the firefighting budget on a rolling, 10-year average of actual costs. Last year, that would have boosted the Forest Service firefighting budget from about $1 billion to about $1.5 billion.

The bill would also require the Forest Service to treat 7.5 million acres with thinning, restoration logging or controlled burns in designated areas over the next 15 years.

The bill would require full funding of fire suppression efforts, but also require the government to spend at least half as much on forest treatments as it does actually fighting the fires. That would result in a budget of about $750 million annually for forest treatments.

Currently the administration has set the firefighting budget at about 70 percent of the long-term average cost, which has risen sharply each year in recent years due to the impact of drought and a crisis in forest health across millions of acres. The bill would require the administration to set the budget at 100 percent of the 10-year average, with a stricter means of calculating the average.

The bill would also prevent the Forest Service from borrowing money from other accounts to cover the emergency cost of fighting wildfires. It would, however, allow the Forest Service to borrow money when it goes over the new, higher firefighting budget, in the same way the federal government can borrow money from budget accounts to cover the cost of natural disasters like hurricanes.

Finally, the bill would try to make it easier to get forest thinning and restoration projects approved.

Such projects would still have to undergo environmental assessments and comply with laws like the Endangered Species Act. However, the bill sets up a system to review projects that relies on arbitrators rather than the courts when groups file objections to a project. The ruling of the arbitrator could not be appealed to the courts for forest health and thinning projects in the specified areas.

The bill also offers various incentives for the Forest Service to set up stewardship contracts to streamline the thinning projects.

The White Mountain Stewardship contract offers one example. The Forest Service set up a long-term contract to thin the forests near Alpine, Greer and Springerville. The project faltered because the Forest Service couldn’t provide enough money to subsidize the thinning operations. However, thinned buffer zones created as a result of the project likely saved Alpine and Greer from the Wallow Fire.

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative remains the largest forest restoration contract in the nation’s history, but it also has lagged far behind schedule. The private contractor is supposed to thin a million acres or more at no cost to the taxpayers by turning the small trees and brush into fuel and products. But the contractor has so far thinned only a fraction of the acres called for in the original contract.

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