Wyden, Vilsack to push for fire disaster bill
Citing the continuing wildfires in the western states, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week they would urge Congress to pass a bill to change the system to pay for fighting the worst forest fires.
Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, have introduced a Wildfire Disaster Funding Act that would move any fire suppression spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average to a disaster funding account that is separate from Forest Service and Interior budgets. The change would be limited to the 1 to 2 percent of largest wildfires, which consume 30 percent of firefighting budgets.
In a call to reporters from Portland, Vilsack said that fighting forest fires now takes up more than 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget and that the continual transfer of funds from other Forest Service activities is making the problem worse.
“If this problem does not get fixed we will continue to see continued budget creep,” Vilsack said, noting that as recently as 1995 only 16 percent of the Forest Service budget went to fire fighting.
Vilsack also noted that Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has put a hold on other spending pending an analysis of further firefighting needs.
Wyden said the forest fires are particularly bad this year because there has been “a terrible trifecta” of very hot temperatures, drought and a buildup of fuel.
“My concern is that for the West this is the new norm,” he said.
Wyden said a coalition of 11 western senators are determined to pass his Wildfire Disaster Funding Act in September and that they have gotten the support of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
He also mentioned that President Barack Obama noted the issue when he met recently with a group of senators.
Wyden also said the Congressional Budget Office has issued an analysis that shows the bill would reduce firefighting spending in the long run.
He acknowledged that opponents have expressed fears that the program “would create a new back-door spending spigot,” but that he believes the combination of Enzi’s support and the CBO analysis will counter that argument.
Wyden said he believes the support for the change has grown and will continue this fall because the fire season has gotten longer and is likely to continue.
“It is hard to tell when one fire season ends and another begins,” Wyden said, noting that there were fires on the Oregon coast in January.
“This has been a horrific season for firefighters,” Vilsack added. “We lost seven of our brightest and best.”
Wyden and Vilsack noted that more than 250 private sector organizations are supporting the bill, and Vilsack said he believes they will step up with lobbying on it this fall.
They also noted that the fires have hurt the recreation industry.
“This recreation issue is a real driver in rural America,” Vilsack said. “There are many industries dependent on forests.”
But there is conflict between the Senate and the House on the issue. A spokesman for House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, noted in an email to The Hagstrom Report that the House has passed a bill called the Resilient Federal Forests Act, which would scale back the environmental reviews that go into some timber projects and make it harder to file lawsuits that delay thinning projects.
“It is encouraging that Sen. Wyden continues call attention to our wildfire crisis. Unfortunately, a fire borrowing fix alone is a drop in the bucket when it comes addressing the underlying management crisis on our forest lands.”
–The Hagstrom Report