House to vote on Continuing Resolution to repay money taken from Forest Service and the Department of Interior for fire suppression

By Noelle Straub
Washington, DC (September 24, 2008)- Wildfire money in legislation this month should allow the Forest Service to reverse devastating cuts it has made to other programs in order to cover firefighting costs this season. The funding will be used to repay accounts, fund hazardous fuels reduction and rehab work, and assist with fire fighter retention. “There’s smiles” around the Forest Service today, spokeswoman Donna Drelick said. ACT encourages members to thank representatives on the Appropriations Committees for their hard work on this, and urge that this legislation move quickly with these funds included.

The continuing resolution (CR) to fund government past September 30th contains $775 million for the Forest Service and $135 million for the Bureau of Land Management for wildfire costs, according to a draft released by the House Appropriations Committee. The House will vote on it as soon as today.
Of the Forest Service money, $500 million would go for fire suppression. That includes at least $300 million to be transferred to the agency within 15 days of the bill being signed into law so that all such transfers for wildfire suppression in fiscal 2008 are fully repaid and $100 million, also to be made available within 15 days, to repay transfers made for previous emergency wildfire suppression activities.
Another $175 million would go to hazardous fuels reduction in areas at high risk of catastrophic wildfires, including some on state and private lands. The bill also provides $75 million for rehabilitation and restoration of federal lands that may be transferred to other Forest Service accounts as necessary and $25 million for “preparedness for retention initiatives in areas at high risk of catastrophic wildfire that face recurrent staffing shortages.”
Drelick said the money would go back to Forest Service units that had to cut programs and transfer the funds to firefighting, unless an emergency case, such as a hurricane or other disaster, were to arise. “Depending on the decision of our leadership, the money most likely will go back to the Forest Service units, perhaps in a priority manner for work to be completed on the ground,” Drelick said.
Cecilia Clavet, national forest program associate with the Wilderness Society, hailed the money as “definitely good news.” “It will provide relief for all those programs that have been pulled from to pay for suppression,” Clavet said. But she added that the next step must be for Congress to work on a long-term solution so the Forest Service does not end up in this predicament every year.
As in years past, the amount Congress budgeted for the agency to fight wildfires is not enough to cover the entire season. This year, Congress put $1.2 billion toward suppression, but the agency had to transfer at least $400 million from other programs. Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell sent a memo in August to agency staff asking them to find ways to come up with the extra money from other programs.
The cuts were forcing the closure of some recreation areas, causing some contract obligations to go unmet, and canceling construction, research and natural resource work.
The amount Congress puts in the agency’s firefighting budget each year is based on a 10-year average for fire costs. Numerous factors have increased fire season costs over the last decade, including climate change, hazardous fuels in forests and more people living in wildfire-prone areas.
Fire funding now accounts for about 50 percent of the agency’s budget. Lawmakers of both parties, administration officials and advocacy groups have all agreed that something must be done to change the way the Forest Service pays for fire suppression.
The House earlier this year easily passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act, which would create a special federal fund for the largest wildfires, but Congress looks likely to adjourn without the Senate acting on it.
Related Resources:
ACT Joins Call for Solutions to Forest Fires Funding