Obama's wildfire funding plan stirs debate and party tension

2014-06-20 Ashley Bach

A proposal by President Obama to change the way wildfire fighting is funded has received bipartisan support in Congress from Western lawmakers, support from many Western governors and support from many editorial boards. 

According to the Twin Falls (Idaho) News-Times, Obama's plan would "treat and fund the increasing number of catastrophic fires around the country as natural disasters, ultimately freeing up money to focus on prevention of such disasters. Often these catastrophic fires require more money than is available, leaving the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to pull funding from other areas, including fire fuel reduction programs."

The Seattle Times editorial board said freeing up more wildfire money makes sense because "current budgetary regulations fuel a raid on the funds intended to make federal land more resistant to fire and climate change."

Washington State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark told the Yakima Herald-Republic that he supports the plan because "the new (wildfire funding) system will ensure that spending doesn’t hurt normal forest health management activities that are also desperately needed."

So why isn't Obama's plan law already? Instead of being approved by federal lawmakers, the proposal is stirring debate about federal forest policy and riling up tension in an already bitterly divided Congress.

The New York Times this week ran an op-ed from former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman calling on Congress to approve the wildfire funding plan. But that was followed a day later by an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Terry Anderson, a free market environmentalist, and environmental author Daniel Botkin raising concerns about Obama's plan.  

Anderson and Botkin don't say they're opposed outright to the funding plan, but they write that the plan makes false assumptions that human activity is inherently bad for forests.

The forest-management dilemma results, in part, from a mistaken belief held by some conservationists that nature, if left on its own, achieves a balance that is best for nature and for humans. Change brought on by humans is bad for all.

Sometimes fire is good for forests, Anderson and Botkin say, and many environmentalists are also wrong in thinking that forests can't adapt to climate change. The two write that they believe in "dynamic ecology," the idea that "the environment has always changed and is always changing, and humans have always played a role;" as well as "dynamic economics," that "human ingenuity and new technologies change nature and adjust to it."

Dynamic ecology and dynamic economics go hand in hand if we combine good science with the right incentives. More firefighting budget alone without accompanying funding for prescribed burning and other fuel-removing actions, will only promulgate Kodachrome-moment management. By better linking human action to our dynamic natural world, we can find ways for nature to sustain biodiversity and people to prosper both materially and aesthetically.

The dueling op-eds this week in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reflect a similar division in Congress. While lawmakers from both parties support the wildfire funding plan, each party seems to be supporting the plan for different reasons. Democrats believe wildfires are out of control because of climate change, while Republicans (rightfully so) believe wildfires are increasing because of federal forest mismanagement that has allowed forests to overgrow and become fire- and disease-prone.

Many Republicans support the wildfire funding plan in theory but they don't like that President Obama took legislation that was already in Congress, put it in his fiscal 2015 budget and made it part of his climate change policies, according to the Twin Falls Times-News.

Democrats, meanwhile, have their own problems. Five Republican senators on the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee recently wrote a letter to the committee chairwoman, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. The senators said they want Landrieu to stop stonewalling on the wildfire funding plan and get hearings started on the legislation.

The health of our country's forests is too poor to wait any longer, not just for wildfire funding but also legislation to increase the federal timber harvest, the senators said.

"One of the greatest challenges facing our western forests is the growing severity of the fire season. Extreme fire behavior has become the new normal, due in no small part, to the mismanagement or lack of management of our public lands. This mismanagement has resulted in the loss of property, natural resources, wildlife habitat, as well as jobs and economic opportunities in rural communities."