WASHINGTON, D.C. – Three U.S. senators have introduced legislation that would allow for the full funding of wildland fire-fighting budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior as well dramatically increase resources for forest restoration programs.
John McCain (R-Ariz.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced the bill known as S. 2593, the FLAME Act Amendments of 2014.
“Congress must fully fund our fire suppression needs, but to reduce wildfire costs over time we must also thin our fire-prone forests,” McCain said.
“There are similar proposals in Congress that support suppression spending but don’t as clearly guarantee funding for forest treatment programs, put an end to fire-borrowing or promote the utility of private timber industry. We need to rethink the current practice of throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at wildfires year after year and begin aggressively treating our forests,” he added.
Flake noted that the bill aims to get ahead of the massive wildfire threat that plagues communities throughout the country by making fire suppression and proactive forest management priorities.
“Enacting this measure would prohibit the crippling practice of fire borrowing, while responsibly budgeting for wildfire management at levels commensurate with the size of the problem,” Flake said.
Barrasso pointed out that it’s crucial that federal, state and local agencies have all the resources they need to fight fires and ultimately save lives, homes and property across the West.
“We also must end the unsustainable practice of ‘fire-borrowing’ and prioritize funding for active management activities that will help prevent large scale forest fires in the future. Our bill gives land managers the tools and resources they desperately need to invest in hazardous fuels reduction and disease treatment projects. This will go a long way in preventing forest fires and saving taxpayer dollars,” Barraso said.
Rather than budgeting for wildfires using just 70 percent of a 10-year historic average of suppression expenditures as the Obama Administration recently proposed, this bill requires the Forest Service and the Interior Department to budget for 100 percent of their suppression costs using the most accurate budget forecast model available (known as the “FLAME regression model”).
The bill also prohibits federal agencies from raiding non-wildfire accounts to pay for wildfires, a practice known as “fire-borrowing.”
While the Administration’s proposal would allow wildfire spending to automatically exceed statutory budget caps on disaster funding, S. 2593 would establish a limited process for accessing emergency funds in the event of a catastrophic wildfire, while investing aggressively in suppression and forest management programs.
Finally, this bill would establish a streamlined environmental review process to expedite forest treatment projects across 7.5 million acres of federal land and promote the use of private industry under forest stewardship contracts.
The senators further noted that if this bill had been enacted for Fiscal Year 2014, the Forest Service could have on hand about $1.9 billion that they predict is needed to fight this year’s fires compared to the $1.3 billion appropriated by Congress.
The Forest Service would also be allowed to access up to $1 billion in emergency spending for suppression while dedicating $950 million for hazardous fuel management, landscape scale forest restoration and treating insect infested areas.
Out of the Forest Service’s $4.9 billion request for fiscal 2014, $201 million was requested by the Administration for hazardous fuels removal around rural communities.
Summary of McCain-
Barrasso-Flake Wildfire Bill
• Prohibits Forest Service and the Interior Department from “fire-borrowing” from all accounts not connected to wildfire management.
• Requires FS/DOI to use the best available budget forecast model to plan its wildfire season and fully fund its suppression operations at 100 percent. Currently, Forest Service uses a 10-year historic average of past wildfire spending to predict its future needs, which isn’t keeping pace with the increase in size and cost of wildfires.
• Establishes a narrowly tailored process to access emergency funds in the event of a catastrophic wildfire that exhausts suppression accounts, but also requires appropriators to invest in hazardous fuels reduction projects and insect disease treatment projects.
• To access this emergency process for catastrophic wildfires, two things must happen: (1) 100 percent of the suppression needs must be funded; and (2) a number equal to 50 percent of the suppression costs must go to hazardous fuel reduction projects like those authorized under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, the Tribal Forests Protection Act and landscape scale forest restoration.
• Offers incentives for more funding to the HFRA (which is authorized at $760 million a year) to prevent future wildfires near rural communities and bring down forest suppression costs over the long term.
• Requires Forest Service to treat 7.5 million acres of federal land designated as “Forest Management Emphasis Areas” within 15 years under an expedited environmental review process.
• Promotes the use of private industry to help the Forest Service to thin forests by enhancing existing forest stewardship contracting law.