Budget hearing: Wildfires a priority for US Forest Service

By Lauren McDonald

©U.S. Department of Agriculture

As the appropriations season for fiscal year (FY) 2017 ramps up in Washington, Congressional subcommittees in both the House and Senate are holding hearings to discuss and dissect the President’s budget request. Every year the president submits a budget request to Congress outlining the federal government’s funding needs for the upcoming FY, which starts on Oct. 1. Congress must then approve this budget through 12 separate appropriations bills, each developed by a specific appropriations subcommittee.

Wildfire suppression is a priority for the U.S. Forest Service, according to USFS Chief Tom Tidwell. In a Senate appropriations hearing on Mar. 9, Tidwell defended the Service’s request for increased wildfire suppression funding, stating that the current budget approach is unviable.

The Forest Service’s budget proposal calls for $1.2 billion in funding for wildfire suppression, which is 70 percent of the ten-year average of firefighting costs. Additionally, the budget calls for an $864 million fire suppression cap adjustment, which would be provided through a disaster relief funding stream.

USFS hopes the fire suppression cap adjustment would eliminate the need for fire borrowing. Fire borrowing refers to the withdrawal of money from other agency programs, including wildlife and fisheries habitat management, in order to fulfill the Service’s funding needs for firefighting – a practice which has become commonplace over the past 14 years.

During the budget hearing, Chief Tidwell affirmed that one-time fire suppression funding boosts are not a solution, and that permanent funding allocations must be made in order to stop fire borrowing. Congress has attempted to address the issue of wildfire suppression funding in the past through the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 167, S. 235), which, if enacted, would treat wildfires like other natural disasters, and allow the Forest Service to access emergency funding. The Wildlife Society supported this bill in late 2015.

The USFS’ proposed $65 million increase for the Land and Water Conservation Fund was also discussed at the hearing. Tidwell defended the budget request, saying the funding would enable the Forest Service to acquire land parcels to increase access to public lands and eliminate concerns over boundaries between private lands and adjacent national forests.

Lauren McDonald is a policy intern at The Wildlife Society as part of the Government Affairs & Partnership program.

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