House introduces fire funding solution bill

Posted by Renee Magyar on February 7, 2014

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 ensures funding for wildfire first responders and for public land managers.

Prescribed burns are one way to reduce the risk of extreme wildfire, and are funded through forest restoration budgets.

There is strong support from the Oregon delegation for protecting funding for forest restoration, by creating an emergency funding process for wildfire response that puts wildfire on par with other kinds of natural disasters. In past years, emergency funding has been pulled, or "borrowed," from other areas of the US Forest Service and US Department of Interior budgets, at the expense of restoration and other land management projects.

We are anticipating a severe wildfire season this coming summer, considering the low levels of precipitation we've seen this winter. If this bill passes it could help ensure adequate funding for wildfire response, as well as ongoing practices that reduce the overall risk of extreme fire.

Read below for more information.

For Immediate Release

Contact: Jon Schwedler, The Nature Conservancy, 916/769-4728; Genevieve O'Sullivan, National Association of State Foresters, 202/624-5415

House Introduces Fire Funding Solution Bill; Broad Coalition of Forest Interests Support

Bipartisan House Bill Mirrors Earlier Bipartisan Bill in Senate

February 5, 2014 (Arlington, Virginia) - A broad coalition of conservation, timber, tribal, recreation, sportsmen and employer groups praised Representatives Simpson (R-ID) and Schrader (D-OR) for introducing the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 that would create an emergency funding process for fire response. This funding structure is similar to existing federal funding mechanisms for response to other natural disasters, and would prevent "borrowing" from other USDA Forest Service (USFS) and Department of the Interior (DOI) programs. Since 2000 these agencies have run out of money to fight emergency fires eight times.

This bill ensures funding for both wildfire first responders and for land managers who care for public forests and streams. It is the House companion of the Senate bill, S. 1875, which was introduced at the end of 2013 by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Crapo (R-ID) and continues to gain bipartisan co-sponsorship.

When the USFS and DOI wildfire suppression expenses exceed 70% of the 10-year average, this Bill provides funding from "off budget" sources in a structure similar to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pays for other natural disaster responses.  This would significantly minimize the need to transfer funds from non-suppression accounts when suppression funds are depleted. For years, the practice of transferring high suppression costs has negatively impacted agencies' ability to implement forest management activities.

This additional funding would be provide outside the normal discretionary appropriations process, and could potentially make these "savings" available for forest treatments that help to reduce fire risk and costs, such as Hazardous Fuels removal.

"This leadership from Representatives Simpson and Schrader can establish a long-term solution for fire suppression funding that will finally end the senseless series of fire transfers and guarantee firefighters adequate resources to protect our communities and lands," said Darrel L. Kenops, Executive Director of National Association of Forest Service Retirees.

"We need an approach to fire suppression funding which lets Forest Service manage the Forests, instead of constantly moving funding to emergency suppression needs. Wildfire costs and fire borrowing disrupts forest management and other key programs", said Bill Imbergamo, Executive Director of the Federal Forest Resources Coalition. "This bipartisan bill will help put the Forest Service back in the woods doing what they do best. We appreciate Congressmen Simpson's and Schrader's leadership on this issue. They've done yeoman's work in developing this approach to fire budgeting. Anyone who cares about our National Forests should get behind this bill."

"Important USDA  Forest Service programs  can be and are  significantly  impacted by fire transfers, including  the Land and Water Conservation Fund,  urban and community forestry, roads and trail maintenance, wildlife, recreation" said Rebecca Turner, Senior Director of Programs and Policy of American Forests, "including the very programs that would reduce wildfire risk, like State Fire Assistance and restoration.  This new  proposed mechanism will help stop this from happening."

"We're pleased that Mr. Simpson and Mr. Schrader are leading the effort in the House to correct a long-standing and unsustainable wildfire suppression funding model," said Cecilia Clavet, Senior Policy Advisor on Fire and Forest Restoration for The Nature Conservancy.  "Finally funding a portion of suppression like other emergencies will provide agencies with consistent funding levels that will focus their efforts on minimizing the risk and costs wildfire in the future."

"The practice of transferring funds from non-fire programs has undermined the agencies' ability to help sustainably manage the nation's forests," said Chris Maisch, Alaska State Forester and President of the National Association of State Foresters. "State foresters believe this new approach is needed to enable the USFS and DOI to deliver on their missions and implement needed forest management activities on all of America's forests, both public and private. Our forests deliver many essential benefits to society such as wood products, jobs, clean air and water, and wildlife habitat; but these benefits are at risk if we don't take action to stop the destructive cycle of fire transfers."

"The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is the kind of common-sense approach we need to address the well-being of our public lands," added John Audley, President of Sustainable Northwest.  "By treating wildfire like the natural disaster it is, this bill will end the troubling cycle of fire funding transfers, give federal agencies greater certainty in land management planning, and ensure that forest restoration funds are used for the purposes they were intended."

"Many people may associate wildfire funding with America's publically owned forests, but the truth is transfers from non-fire accounts the past several years have significantly affected America's family owned forests, too," shared Tom Martin, President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation. "In fact, 22 million family forest owners make up the largest forest ownership group in the United States, leveraging their own time, energy and investment with critical Forest Service program resources to steward healthy and sustainable woodlands, providing benefits that all Americans enjoy every day."

Many factors contribute to the increase in wildfire frequency and severity, including changes in climate, build-up of hazardous fuels, and increasing populations in the wildland urban interface.   This past decade fires have burned 57% more land than in the previous four decades; the fire season has expanded by two months; and the average size of fires has increased by a factor of five since the 1970s. The frequency and severity of these wildfires need to be matched by significant levels of funding to protect people, water, and wildlife.