Congress works to address growing concern over wildfires

By Kaitlyn Miller

©Josh O'Connor/USFWS

This year nearly 52,700 wildfires have already burned over 8.8 million acres. The recent, devastating fires in California led to 23 deaths, burned 245,000 acres, and destroyed over 8,700 structures. Insured losses from the fire have already topped $3 billion. The growing severity of the issue has brought it to lawmakers’ attention and a number of bills are making their way through Congress.

One such bill is the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 (H.R. 2936). It passed the House on November 1. The bill calls for increased forest thinning through expanding the amount of land that could be excluded from certain National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews, which would expedite forest projects.  The bill also has provisions designed to eliminate fire borrowing —  a practice where the U.S. Forest Service taps funding from non-fire programs when fire suppression funding has been exhausted. This results in taking funds from other USFS programs, usually forest management programs that could be used to help prevent future wildfires. The bill also seeks to rein in lawsuits against the USFS by establishing an arbitration pilot program. It would require opposing forest management activity to offer an alternative forest management proposal instead of just rejecting the initial proposal.

In the Senate, Senator Barrasso (R-WY) introduced a bill (S. 2068) that would also work to increase and speed up forest-thinning projects through establishing a categorical exclusion or excluding certain types of activities from NEPA reviews, including activities aimed at improving the habitat of the greater sage-grouse and mule deer, addressing the forest health crisis, and prioritizing forest management activities to achieve ecosystem restoration. This bill does not include any provisions designed to combat fire borrowing.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has been introduced in both the House (H.R. 2862) and the Senate (S. 1842). This bipartisan bill focuses on providing an emergency funding stream for wildfires in an attempt to decrease fire borrowing. It would enable the USFS to fund wildfire fighting costs in a similar manner to other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, once the annual wildfire suppression budget is exceeded. This would prevent money initially intended for other programs from being used for fire suppression.

TWS has supported legislation aimed at ending fire borrowing in the past as it takes away funds intended for other programs that are important for the long-term conservation of wildlife and their habitats. A U.S. Forest Service report from 2014 listed all the impacts of fire borrowing by state in 2012 and 2013. In Minnesota in 2012, timber stand improvement, watershed restoration, wildlife habitat improvement, and invasive species treatment projects were all reduced by about 50 percent. In Maryland, a $75,000 “State and Private Forestry Redesign” project to manage the Emerald Ash Borer was canceled. In California, trail work and repair was not completed including on the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. Between 2012 and 2013, nearly every state was impacted in someway by fire borrowing.

It is expected that Congress will enact some of the measures put forward in these bills, though exactly what is still unclear. It is also uncertain as to when any of these measures will be voted on as Congress is also in the process of attempting to enact a major tax reform and pass the Fiscal Year 2018 budget and appropriations bills.

Kaitlyn Miller is a policy intern at The Wildlife Society as part of the Wildlife Policy and Programs team. Read more of Kaitlyn's articles here.