Congress likely to address fire costs, management issues next year

By Noelle Straub
Washington, DC (November 18, 2008)- There is growing momentum in Congress behind a solution to wildfire issues within the Forest Service. For many, the top wildfire priority will be to overhaul the funding mechanism for Forest Service wildfire suppression efforts. Currently, the agency is dealing with increasing firefighting costs in the face of static budgets, inducing cuts in other programs in order to meet suppression needs.

Some feel this problem is best addressed through a separate account for fire suppression like the one proposed in Rep. Nick Rahall’s (D-WV) FLAME Act introduced earlier this year. Beyond simple funding needs, other members are calling for a more holistic approach that confronts hazardous fuels buildups and “appropriate management response” which would allow firefighters to allocate resources based on a number of factors that determine a fire’s threat to life and property.
With a new Congress next year comes a fresh chance to revamp the Forest Service, an agency beset in recent years by budget troubles and annual fights over where it should focus its priorities.
Insect infestations and the beginning effects of climate change have harmed the health of the nation’s forests, while a century of focus on fire suppression has allowed a buildup of brush and trees ready to burn. Congress stepped in five years ago with legislation to address some of the problems, but few agree it has worked well, and fire costs have continued to rise steadily.
About half of the agency’s budget now goes toward fighting wildfires, leaving lawmakers lamenting that the Forest Service has turned into the “Fire Service.” To make matters worse, Congress and the Bush administration have not covered rising firefighting costs in recent years, leaving the agency to scrounge for necessary dollars by raiding other programs.
This year, for example, the Forest Service had $1.2 billion budgeted for fire suppression, but the agency had to transfer at least $400 million from other programs when that fell short. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell sent a memo in August to agency staff asking them to find ways to come up with the extra money.
The cuts were forcing the closure of some recreation areas, causing some contract obligations to go unmet, and cancelling construction, research and natural resource work. Congress later approved $610 million for the Forest Service and Interior Department in emergency federal firefighting funding, restoring some of those transfers that had been made.
Lawmakers often direct such money outside the regular budget process to the agency late in the year, but all sides agree the process needs to be changed. The incoming Obama administration has promised to end the agency’s need to shift money from other priorities to cover fire, but it is up to Congress to make it happen.
More than 5.1 million acres of land nationwide have burned this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the lowest annual total since 2003. More than 9 million acres burned in 2006 and 2007, and more than 8 million acres burned in 2004 and 2005. Fire suppression costs are not determined solely on how many acres burn — costs escalate near population centers and other areas where firefighters are attempting to save lives or resources.
Budget revamp ahead?
An attempt was made this session to fix the Forest Service’s fiscal woes. Earlier this year, the House easily passed a bill sponsored by Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) to create a special federal fund for the largest wildfires.
Called the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act, it would have taken the pressure off the agency’s regular budget by paying separately for catastrophic fires, which make up a very small percentage of the blazes the agency fights but account for most of its costs. Conservation and state forester groups called it a good first step but decried last-minute changes to the bill that weakened it.
The Senate never acted on the matter.
“I have been frustrated at its not being able to pass,” Rahall said in an interview before the congressional recess. “It certainly detracted in my home state of West Virginia from the normal Forest Service budget and what they’re able to provide in my home state. We need this separate account, this sequestration if you will of emergency funds for these major forest fires that have become more prevalent across many parts of the West.”
The legislation will be at the top of his agenda in January, Rahall said.
A spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has said Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) looks forward to working with Rahall on the issue. In a recent interview, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who will be the top Republican on the panel, also said wildfire budgets need to be dealt with, especially in light of the effects of climate change and drought and because her state sometimes lacks the equipment or manpower it needs to fight fires.
“You don’t want to have a policy where it’s kind of a wish and a prayer policy, that we just wish that this year we don’t have bad fires because we don’t have the budget to take it on,” Murkowski said. “I think it is something that needs to be reviewed and assessed.”
Environmentalists and state foresters also seek an end to the annual fire budget dilemmas, said Cecilia Clavet, national forest program associate with the Wilderness Society.
“What they want to do next year is readjust this entire issue and see what all the alternatives are and come up with one that would solve the problem,” Clavet said. “So I think you have everything you need to move something through, it’s just finding what that is.”
Other forest issues
Clavet also said Congress should encourage the agency to continue a management strategy it has begun to employ called “appropriate management response,” which can range from aggressively suppressing a fire to simply monitoring a fire in the backcountry as long as it does not threaten lives or significant property.
“The agency is somewhat there,” she said. “The role of Congress is to fund them and direct that increase toward training firefighters on AMR.”
Some members of Rahall’s panel have pushed him to address what they say are the underlying issues of forest health — reducing so-called hazardous fuels, the dry brush and trees that have accumulated and increase the likelihood of unusually large wildland fires. Some Republicans wanted to streamline environmental review for some of those projects.
“Let’s get the bill we had this year through first, and we can certainly follow up on that,” Rahall said. “I know the appropriate appropriations chairman, Norm Dicks, is very concerned as well, we’ve worked closely together on this legislation.” Dicks (D-Wash.) is chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which annually bemoans the growing percentage of Forest Service dollars going to fire suppression.
Five years ago, Congress passed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which was intended to make it easier for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to thin hazardous fuels that had built up over a century of fire suppression in fire-adapted ecosystems, especially near communities. So far, about 213,000 acres of forest land have been treated nationwide under HFRA authorities — far less than the 20 million acres authorized for expedited thinning under the act (Landletter, Nov. 6).
Last year, Senate Forest Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called HFRA a failure, citing a lack of money as the culprit.
Wyden developed a draft earlier this year of legislation that he says would emphasize large-scale restoration efforts that could create rural timber jobs and protect Oregon’s old-growth forests, still a flash point for environmentalists.
It would provide new guidance for BLM and the Forest Service in Oregon, focusing both agencies’ emphasis on expedited logging operations to improve forest health against the threats of wildfires and insect infestations. It would also require both agencies to incorporate aquatic conservation strategies and discourage clear-cutting and timber harvests in roadless areas (E&E Daily, June 20).
Wyden said the plan would amplify forest health efforts and create thousands of jobs in communities affected by the decline of logging on federal lands. His spokeswoman said yesterday that Wyden plans to introduce the bill in the next Congress.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, said he was not sure that the proposal is a complete compromise for forest management but that it is an encouraging work in progress.
There is also a chance Congress could wade into the controversy over the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which granted blanket protection to about 58 million acres of federal land nationwide and has been mired in legal battles ever since President Clinton put it in place just before leaving office.
Obama supports the Clinton-era rule, and Democrats have introduced a bill to codify the roadless area protections in every Congress since 2001.
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