Support continues in D.C. to fix wildfire funding


We wrote last week about how there seems to be wide support in D.C. to change the way the federal government pays to fight wildfires. Leaders from both parties agree that the U.S. Forest Service should not have to raid its own budget to fight massive wildfires, a practice known as “fire borrowing.” Instead, the Forest Service should be able to use money set aside for natural disasters.

But that’s where the agreement stops. The Obama administration and many Democrats want a bill called the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would focus only on getting rid of fire borrowing. For many Republicans and timber leaders, however, this bill doesn’t go nearly far enough. They support a bill passed by the U.S. House last month called the Resilient Federal Forests Act. The bill would get rid of fire borrowing but also increase active management of our federal forests and help restore our rural economies.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, wrote an op-ed this month in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in support of the Resilient Federal Forests Act.

The federal government made a promise to actively manage America’s forests for the benefit of those who call this land home — and to preserve it for their livelihood. Clearly, the government has faltered in this commitment. Decades of burdensome regulations and frivolous lawsuits have hindered forest management.

…This summer, I voted for H.R. 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. This bipartisan legislation incorporates the best combined ideas from my bill, which calls for the Forest Service, local leaders and private companies to work together to expedite environmental review.

This bill will modernize the contract approval process so the Forest Service has the tools they need to quickly remove dead trees and to effectively manage forests in Eastern Washington and across the country.

She reiterated her support for the legislation this week in a town hall meeting with her constituents, after a questioner mischaracterized the bill.

The legislation doesn’t allow for any selling off of federal forest land. What it does allow is for there to be more active management … 1 out of 3 acres on National Forest Service Lands – and we, the U.S. Forest Service owns nearly 200 million acres – is diseased, bug-infested timber. It is just kindling for these fires.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., also had an op-ed this week in support of the bill.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act will improve the health of our forests and our rural economies. During the last session of Congress, the House twice passed bipartisan legislation I worked on to reform federal forest policy. The Senate failed to take up forestry legislation.

However, with new leadership in that body I’m hopeful that the Senate will take meaningful action on forestry legislation.

We cannot let this opportunity pass us by again. Our forested communities have already waited too long. Now is the time to act.

The Vancouver Columbian this week came out in favor of the bill supported by the Obama Administration (the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act), though not necessarily against active forest management.

The first course of action should be for Congress to approve the use of money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deal with wildfires. Common sense dictates that fires should be treated as natural disasters similar to earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, and that emergency funds should be part of the equation. As U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said: “We can’t sit idle and expect the budget issues around fire to fix themselves while people’s houses burn. The Forest Service report reinforces the arguments in favor of a comprehensive solution to address fire spending and our firefighting strategies.”

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which is winding its way through Congress, would provide some relief in this regard. “How many more wildfires have to scorch our landscapes before Congress passes the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act?” asked U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif.

Meanwhile, the Spokane Spokesman-Review recognized that federal lawmakers could come up with a solution that takes into account both bills.

Western lawmakers are responding to the trend by trying to change the way Congress sets the Forest Service budget. The Wildland Disaster Fund Act, authored by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, would treat wildfires as natural disasters, like hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. This would free the agency from spending caps when the need is great. The Obama administration is on board.

A bill shepherded by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers would shift emergency funding into firefighting and speed environmental reviews on timber salvage jobs. The administration opposes the easing of reviews, but there may be room for compromise.

All of these efforts recognize that Northwest weather conditions are changing, whether it’s the blob or global warming or both. Government officials and citizens must learn to adapt.