USA– Wash. D.C.- The stopgap spending bill approved by wide margins in the House and Senate Wednesday includes $700 million in extra funding to fight the rash of wildfires this season.
The additional funding has reignited a debate over how fighting wildfires should be paid for in the future, and the best way to prevent fires or reduce their severity.
The Senate approved the legislation to fund the federal government through Dec. 11 by a 78-20 vote Wednesday morning. The House followed later in the day by a vote of 277-151 and sent it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Without the action, the federal government would have run out of money at midnight Wednesday, the end of the fiscal year.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden is a leader of one side of the debate over how to reform paying for fighting wildfires. He is the sponsor of legislation that would treat fighting the most severe forest fires like other disasters, such as tornadoes. Wyden’s bill has 19 co-sponsors, four of whom are Republicans.
The bill, which has yet to receive a committee hearing, is intended to prevent the need to siphon funds from other accounts in the Forest Service and Interior Department to pay for fighting fires because not enough has been appropriated for fire suppression.
That “fire borrowing” has happened numerous times in recent years, including this year.
Through Sept. 25, almost 49,000 fires had scorched more than 9 million acres. The number of fires at this time in the fire season is the most since 2011 and the acreage burned is the most since 2006.
Proponents argue that pulling money from other accounts reduces needed spending in a variety of areas, including on efforts to thin the forests and do other cleanup that would reduce the number and severity of fires. So far this season, the total shifted is $700 million.
But Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said simply adding more money to cover the cost of fighting forest fires does nothing to address the underlying problem: poorly managed public forest land.
Bishop says the Senate should take up and pass the Resilient Federal Forests Act. That legislation passed the House in July with the votes of 19 Democrats including Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Kurt Schrader of Oregon.
The bill would ease environmental oversight of forest management activities, require those filing legal challenges to forest management projects to post bond, and establish an emergency fund to pay for fighting wildfires if regular funding runs out.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said providing additional firefighting funding “without changing the management regime (is) just putting a Band-Aid on the problem.”
“We may stop some bleeding but we’re not addressing the root cause of the problem,” Westerman said during a news conference last week to promote the legislation..
But environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Wilderness Society, oppose the Resilient Federal Forests Act. “This divisive bill runs roughshod over the time-tested conservation laws put in place decades ago to protect America’s national forests and drinking water,” Alan Rowsome, spokesman with the Wilderness Society, said earlier this year. “It also silences the public from raising concerns about logging on our treasured public lands.”
The Obama administration also opposes the legislation and issued a critique when it passed the House. But the statement is not an explicit veto threat and calls for “continued engagement with Congress to address forest management issues.”
Wyden and fellow Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley sent a letter to Senate leaders on Friday asking that — in addition to the $700 million in the continuing resolution — they support passage of a permanent funding fix for fighting wildfires.
Meanwhile, Bishop and the supporters of the resilient forest legislation hope to attach their legislation to one of the must-pass bills later in the year, including a funding bill that will be needed to keep the federal government open past Dec. 11.