The Wildlife Society recently signed-on to a letter in support of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) (S. 235, H.R. 167), a bipartisan bill aimed at dealing with the difficult question of how to allocate funds to fight wildfires. The current process inadequately addresses the growing costs of fighting wildfires, impacting other federal natural resource programs through “fire borrowing” – the practice of siphoning funds from non-fire suppression accounts to make up for a lack of funds in wildfire accounts. The WDFA would change this process to allow for wildfires to receive funding in a similar manner as other natural disasters.
This letter, signed-on to by a diverse coalition of sportsmen’s, conservation, and timber groups, urged the passage of WDFA provisions through a 2016 appropriations package or through another legislative vehicle in order “to ensure this critical budgetary issue is addressed this year.”
This letter was sent a day after the Nebraska Chapter of TWS (NETWS) sent a letter to Nebraska Congressmen Jeff Fortenberry, Adrian Smith, and Brad Ashford also in support of the measure.
Attempts to solve the continuing practice of fire borrowing by adequately funding U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Department of the Interior (DOI) fire-suppression accounts have been tried previously without success. TWS supported an unsuccessful attempt to pass WDFA last year, and had also done so previously this year.
This letter comes after a Continuing Resolution at the end of September included $700 million in emergency funding to USFS and DOI to help relieve the impacts of fire borrowing. Fire borrowing causes financial uncertainty and work backlogs to wildlife and other non-fire suppression programs.
There is general consensus among elected officials that fire-suppression funding must be addressed. Disagreement over how to go about addressing this issue has resulted in no resolution to date.
The major question lies in whether or not to couple funding fixes with changes to forest management. At a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee Hearing on November 5, this was a common theme of both lawmaker and witness statements. All of the witnesses, including representatives of the Ruffed Grouse Society, National Federation of Federal Employees, American Forest Foundation, Colorado River Water Conservation District, and Trout Unlimited, made it clear that legislative priorities should be in resolving funding issues first by passing WDFA.
Some witnesses spoke of changes to management techniques that would be beneficial, but only if funding issues are dealt with first. Changes discussed included an expansion of the use of categorical exclusions in wildfire prone areas, which would streamline the National Environmental Policy Act review process to allow for quicker wildfire mitigation measures in certain areas. The use of categorical exclusions exists in the Resilient Federal Forests Act (RFFA) (H.R. 2647), a more fiscally conservative take on how to deal with wildfire funding woes.
The WDFA and RFFA have emerged as the two dominant bills in this Congress as to how to adequately fund wildfire suppression. While wildfire funding reform is popular, the ability to pass it in this Congress remains unclear. WDFA has bipartisan support, but many Republicans also want to see management fixes coupled with funding fixes. In contrast, the Administration is against many of the specific management fixes of RFFA as well as the more conservative approach to funding.
|Caroline Murphy is the Government Relations Program Coordinator at The Wildlife Society.