Federal wildfire reform in 2016 goes up in smoke


For several years now we’ve followed the efforts in Congress to pass federal timber reform. None of those efforts have proved successful so far, but more recently there was hope on the horizon that Congress may approve at least one measure that would have provided more money for wildfire prevention. There appeared to be bipartisan momentum to end the practice of “fire borrowing,” in which the U.S. Forest Service raids other parts of its budget, including money set aside for wildfire prevention, to meet the rising cost of fighting wildfires.

As recently as early last week, it looked like Congress would end fire borrowing as one of the many provisions of a larger energy bill. However, by Wednesday of last week, the energy bill was dead – the victim of sparring between the House and Senate over competing versions of the bill.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review editorial board bemoaned the missed opportunity:

Congress will now adjourn for the holidays, and members will have to start all over when a new Congress convenes in January. Two years of work down the drain.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, worked together on the Senate bill, and they urged the House to reconsider, but to no avail.

“If we miss this opportunity now, we are not likely to have another one next year. Our House colleagues should be less concerned about going home this week and more concerned about giving communities the tools they need to deal with wildfire problems and other key issues,” Cantwell said.

The Yakima Herald-Republic said the energy bill would have helped the paper’s home region, not just because of the wildfire reform but because of a separate provision in the bill that would have ensured a more reliable water supply for Central Washington.

This state’s congressional delegation, whose members have worked across party lines on this effort, will have to try again in the next session — with a new Congress and a new president who has voiced a desire to increase funding for the nation’s infrastructure. The energy bill, especially with its water, power grid and wildfire provisions, would seem to qualify as infrastructure. We can only hope.

There would be no better way for Congress to show that it can get things done by moving forward, again, with a measure that is critical to the future economic vitality of Central Washington.

It wasn’t just lawmakers and newspapers who commented on Congress’ failure to act on wildfire funding reform.

“We have an opportunity to put rural America and our rural forested lands to work, including the over one-third of our forests that are owned by rural families. In doing so, we can reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and provide the many benefits we all enjoy from these lands,” said Tom Martin, President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation. “Unfortunately, if wildfire fighting costs continue to consume the US Forest Service and Department of the Interior budgets, we won’t have the tools to act on these opportunities.”

“Once again, we are extremely disappointed that Congress did not pass a fire suppression funding fix,” said Rebecca Turner, Senior Director of Programs and Policy at American Forests. “With bipartisan support there is no excuse why this serious issue has not been solved.”