Frustration boils over as Congress stalls on timber and wildfire reform

2014-08-01 Ashley Bach

The wildfires raging across the West are spurring calls for congressional action to change the way that wildfires are funded, but they are also raising a lot of complaints about congressional inaction. When community leaders call on Congress to pass one of the bills that would free up more money to fight wildfires, they are also making their pleas with more than a hint of exasperation.

As we wrote last week, there are two wildfire funding proposals in Congress:

  • A bill supported by President Obama and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), among others, that would treat wildfires as natural disasters and free up more firefighting money and preserve money for thinning and other fire reduction activity.

  • A bill from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others that would also free up more money to fight forest fires, but in addition, it would require the Forest Service to focus on thinning 7.5 million acres and give the timber industry a bigger role in the process.

The Bend Bulletin editorial board this week was pretty direct in how Congress is falling short of its duties when it comes to the wildfire funding bills:

In the long run, a bipartisan solution to this (wildfire funding) problem simply must be found. Declaring large fires natural disasters is part of the answer. But equally important is a serious and adequately financed plan to improve forest health nationwide. So far, there’s been some bipartisan work in each half of Congress, but the results have been so apart that there’s precious little chance that a workable solution will emerge.

That isn’t just unfortunate, it’s close to catastrophic. If members of both houses are not embarrassed, they should be.

The Corvallis Gazette-Times also called on Congress to do something it rarely does: act quickly:

In the meantime, Congress has yet to move on a proposal — sponsored by a bipartisan collection of lawmakers (including Sen. Wyden) — that would move any fire suppression spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average to a disaster funding account that is separate from Forest Service and Department of the Interior budgets. Such a designation would help preserve money earmarked for forest restoration.

Earlier this month, three Republican senators, including Arizona’s John McCain, introduced a separate measure that would allow agencies to tap into emergency funds only if they completely exhaust a given year’s budget. Half of any additional money would have to go to fuel-reduction projects.

In terms of helping to pay for work that would help to prevent future fires, both proposals would appear to be better than the system we have now. But Congress needs to move swiftly, because our forests are burning now.

The newspapers are right to be pessimistic. Gannett News reported that a wildfire funding bill is unlikely to be approved before Congress goes on its annual summer break at the end of this week.

Nick Smith, the executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, an Oregon group that advocates for active forest management and healthy rural communities, took it one step further in his op-ed this week in Capital Press.

The problems with Congress run deeper than just an inability to pass a wildfire funding bill, Smith says. Proposals to increase the federal timber harvest have languished in Congress for months, if not years. A bill sponsored by outgoing Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, was actually approved by the House last year but isn't going anywhere in the Senate. Sen. Wyden, besides floating a wildfire funding bill, is also desperately trying to move forward a bill to increase the harvest in his home state of Oregon. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is sponsoring a proposal to harvest timber on 7.5 million acres already considered suitable for timber management.

Smith argues in his op-ed that McCain's wildfire funding bill and the timber harvest bills from Hastings and Barrasso go hand and hand. "Americans in our rural, forested communities are asking why the (Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee) has not taken action on legislation to create jobs and generate revenue through responsible and sustainable timber management."

Sen. Barrasso recently joined Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both R-Ariz., in introducing legislation...that would allow for the full funding of wildland firefighting budgets for federal agencies, end the practice of “fire borrowing,” as well as dramatically increase resources for forest restoration programs. The legislation also includes elements of Sen. Barrasso’s (bill)...to restore proactive forest management.

Consideration of (Sen. McCain's bill), as well as (Rep. Doc Hastings' bill), would enable the Senate to finally address the cumbersome federal regulations and endless lawsuits that are draining Forest Service budgets and limiting opportunities for active forest management. A number of states successfully manage millions of acres of state trust lands to generate significant revenue, provide recreational opportunities, and sustain habitat for wildlife. Generating revenue from non-renewable resources, to compensate for the absence of active management, will not fix the problems in our rural communities or our federal forests.