Senate ENR Holds Hearing on Wildfire Funding

Friday, June 24, 2016

By Greg Pilchak

On June 23rd, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to receive testimony on the recent discussion draft entitled “Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act of 2016.” The hearing on the bill focused on three main issues: 1) the need to end “fire borrowing”; 2) the growing portion of the USDA Forest Service’s (USFS) budget consumed by wildfire suppression funds; and 3) the need for forestry reforms to encourage more active management.

NASF recently submitted a letter to the Committee with comments about the draft language.

The discussion draft’s proposed budget cap adjustment, which would curtail late-season fire transfers and borrowing, was universally praised by witnesses and senators alike. However, many witnesses, including California State Forester Ken Pimlott, noted that the draft legislation does not address the structural erosion of the Forest Service non-fire programs and the growing portion of the budget consumed by suppression costs. USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie remarked that everything that the Forest Service does “is being negatively impacted because of the ever-growing proportion of the agency’s budget spent fighting fire.”

Chief Pimlott testified on behalf of NASF and CAL FIRE. He began by noting that in 2014, 80 percent of wildfires occurred on state and private lands, thereby emphasizing states’ significant role in fire management. He cited USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in reporting that California has 66 million dead trees that have succumbed to epidemic levels of pest mortality.

Pimlott said that the fire threat in California is due to a confluence of factors – drought, climate change, and under-management, and that only the last factor is within our control. He echoed those who testified before him in urging senators not only to address the problem of fire borrowing, but also to reverse the trend of fire suppression costs consuming more and more of the Forest Service’s budget. He added that additional funding for active forest management and restoration, however, must be coupled with a streamlined NEPA review process to allow for tree removal at the pace and scale required to mitigate wildfire risk in high hazard areas.

Under Secretary Bonnie made clear that California’s wildfire problems impact forestry activities in every state. When responding to a question from Maine Senator Angus King, Bonnie said that fire suppression funding impacts aren’t just a western issue. In states such as Maine without much national forest, the agency is “working with your state forester to provide help … so they can help private landowners, and those budget funds are less as well.” In 1995, fire suppression accounted for 1/6th of the USFS budget, but in 2015, it accounted for more than half.

Witnesses indicated that there is a critical need to find a way to access disaster funding to pay for catastrophic wildfires. Senator Wyden asked Undersecretary Bonnie whether he would support either a “freeze” on the amount of money annually dedicated to fire suppression and the use of a budget cap adjustment or the option to fund suppression for the largest fires with an off-budget disaster account. Bonnie answered affirmatively.

“State Foresters appreciate the draft bill language which would curtail the need for cancelling contracts and agreements for non-fire suppression work at the end of the summer fire season to pay for suppression costs. However we still must address the significant challenge of fire suppression funding subsuming increasingly larger amounts of the agency budget some of which would actually fund work to reduce wildfire risk,” Paul DeLong, Wisconsin State Forester and President of NASF, said in a press statement for the Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus.

For more information please contact NASF policy director Gary Schiff