Congress seeks wildfire funding fix with reintroduced bill

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) has been reintroduced by Representatives Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR). The bill, previously introduced during the 113th and 114th Congress, varies slightly from its predecessors and would cap annual fire suppression appropriations at 2015 levels while providing additional new budget authority to cover suppression costs in excess of appropriated amounts, thereby addressing issues like fire borrowing.

Fire borrowing occurs when an agency borrows money from a non-fire account to cover excess costs associated with fire suppression operations. Fire borrowing has become an increasingly common practice to address the high — and growing — annual costs of fire suppression. With fire borrowing, land management agencies, namely the U.S. Forest Service, have to divert resources from other program areas, thus negatively affecting the ability of that agency to implement other research and management activities. Since 2002, agencies have had to engage in fire borrowing 12 times.

The increasing annual cost of fire suppression also erodes annual appropriations for non-fire programs within an agency’s budget.  A press release from Simpson’s office pointed to the changing trend in the amount of USFS’ budget allocated to fire funding. In 1995, 16 percent of the budget went to wildfire suppression funding compared to 56 percent in 2016. Without a solution, it is predicted that fire funding could account for almost 70 percent of USFS’ budget by 2025.

WDFA seeks to treat wildfires like other natural disasters after the wildfire suppression budgets have been exceeded, giving agencies access to disaster funding designated under the Budget Control Act. The bill would also prevent the annual budget for fire suppression operations from increasing beyond 2015 levels. This language varies slightly from previous versions of the bill that would cap funding at 70 percent of the ten-year average cost for suppression. When WDFA was previously reintroduced in 2015, the bill had bipartisan support from over 150 cosponsors, but the measure stalled in committees. The 2017 version of the bill currently has 18 cosponsors (9D, 9R).

During recent budget hearings regarding fiscal year 2018 (FY18), much of the discussions centered around finding a fire funding fix. Senators directed questions to USFS Chief Tom Tidwell expressing their concerns over previous inaction and the impacts communities could face moving forward from lack of management due to fire borrowing if Congress fails to find a fire funding fix.

A total of 138 member organizations of the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solution, including The Wildlife Society, signed on to a letter addressed to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, and the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. The letter urges the administration to address the issues associated with wildfire suppression funding by implementing a comprehensive solution. The Caucus outlines the main criteria that would need to be met by potential solutions: “1) address the continued erosion of agency budgets that results from the increasing ten-year average, and stabilize the level of funding for suppression within the agencies; 2) access disaster funding for extraordinarily costly fires, including those that may be calculated as part of the ten-year average; and 3) significantly reduce the need to transfer from non-suppression accounts and programs.” The Caucus believes that WDFA meets these criteria for a comprehensive fire funding solution.

Secretary Perdue responded to the Caucus’ letter on Jun. 7, acknowledging the importance of addressing wildfire suppression funding issues and the valuable role members of the Caucus play in working towards a solution.

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