Agencies Urge Congress to Alter Funding Structure for Fighting Fires

October 21, 2015 | By Jerry Ashworth | Post a Comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of the Interior (DOI) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) last week sent a joint letter to Congress requesting action to change how the nation pays for the cost to fight wildfires to adequately invest in forest and rangeland restoration, and make forests less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.

Over the last 15 years, the frequency, size and severity of wildland fires has increased. The cost of the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million in a one-week period in September. The Forest Service is spending 52 percent of its budget to fight fires, compared to just 16 percent in 1995, forcing USDA to transfer funds away from forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires. More than $700 million has been spent to fight wildfires this year.

The agency heads proposed that DOI and the Forest Service should be able to access a discretionary disaster cap adjustment after the amount spent on fire suppression exceeds 70 percent of the 10-year average. This is mirrored in the proposed bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 167), the agency heads said, adding that this approach allows the agencies to invest additional resources in forest and rangeland restoration and management. In the case of the Forest Service, it would increase acres treated by 1 million acres annually and increase timber outputs by 300 million board feet annually.

The letter points out that the alternative House-passed Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (H.R. 2647) is incompatible with the federal government’s natural disaster management needs because it does not address the long-term shift in the Forest Service’s budget and the escalating percent of the Forest Service budget devoted to fire suppression. “We urgently need to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs — instead of leaving our agencies and the states scrambling to plug budget gaps while they are literally putting out fires,” said OMB Director Shaun Donovan said.

As many places in the country continue to experience drought conditions, the threat of wildfires only grows. It’s now time to take responsible fiscal action towards spending on fire suppression because these damaging wildfires don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Let’s see what Congress ultimately does to address this issue.

What do you think should be done related to wildfire suppression spending? Let us know.

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