Campaign for wildfire reform continues in both Washingtons


While federal wildfire reform died a last-minute death back in December, hope is not lost for meaningful legislation to change the way the federal government pays to fight wildfires.

As we wrote in January, the issue that Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that the feds must end the practice of “fire borrowing,” where the Forest Service raids other parts of its budget to pay for firefighting.

The current momentum seems to be centered on the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which was the more White House- and Democrat-favored bill last year to end fire borrowing. That said, Republicans seem willing to support it if it frees up more money for the Forest Service to prevent fires, not just fight them.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, wrote this week that he’s still trying to get fire borrowing legislation passed. Crapo is one of the primary sponsors of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

I recently had the opportunity to join fellow Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) in speaking on the Senate floor and offering a bipartisan amendment to draw attention to the need to permanently fix wildfire funding now and end the senseless practice of raiding fire prevention and other U.S. Forest Service accounts to fight this year’s fires.

We introduced an amendment to the energy bill being debated by the full Senate that would end fire borrowing for good, stop the erosion of the Forest Service budget and ramp up fire prevention projects, thereby reducing wildfire risks and fire suppression costs.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell earlier this month that he’s still committed to getting a bill passed.

“This is about raiding the prevention fund in order to fight fire,” Wyden said. “We’ve got to have active management, and we’ve also got to find a way to get this done because this makes a mockery of the Forest Service budget. We’re going to do everything we can through the leadership on both sides of the Capitol to work with you and to get this done.”

Wildfire funding is also still resonating in Washington State. U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, chairman of the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, was in Okanogan County this week to discuss land management and wildfire preparedness.

Jon Wyss, chairman of the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group, said he hopes (Rep.) Thompson learns about management of the forest and the mutual benefits of recreation, grazing and other uses of the forest.

He said a bill to end the borrowing of non-firefighting funds within the U.S. Forest Service budget to fight fires has enjoyed bipartisan support and needs to be pursued despite failing last year.

Reps. Dave Reichert, Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, all Republicans from Washington, said in an op-ed last week in the Wenatchee World that Congress is pursuing several bills to reform wildfire funding and improve forest health.

Throughout most of the last decade, year after year the U.S. Forest Service has exhausted funds allocated for wildfire suppression long before the fire season has ended, forcing them to dip into other accounts intended for forest health and management activities. This has left the agency with few resources available to clean up hazardous fuels and maintain healthy forests. As these past several summers have proven, if we do not have sufficient funds for management programs then our national forests will continue to be a tinderbox, waiting to be lit by a match or struck by a bolt of lightning.

Realizing this dangerous cycle, we have supported measures in Congress that would clean up our fire-prone forests and strengthen our management programs. We are cosponsors of the Wildfire Disaster Fund Act (H.R. 167) which ends the Forest Service fire borrowing and treats wildfire response budgets just like every other natural disaster.

The House members said other legislation would allow for more active management of federal forests and better protect forests from the risk of wildfire.

This past July, we voted for and the House passed the bipartisan Resilient Federal Forests Act (H.R. 2647). This legislation will ensure that processes are in place to better clean up our forests, and would save critical forest management funds by authorizing the U.S. Forest Service to borrow from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) when they need additional resources to fight wildfires, instead of taking funds originally intended for management purposes. We are cosponsors of the FORESTS Act (H.R. 2178), introduced by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, which would assist forest maintenance projects.

Specifically, this legislation would make it easier and less costly for the Forest Service and stakeholders to collaborate in responsible timber harvesting efforts, which is an important part of wildfire prevention and can provide additional economic opportunities for our rural communities. Removing rotting or diseased timber is critical to protecting the health of the surrounding ecosystems, animal habitats, and the beauty of our forests that folks throughout our region have enjoyed for generations.