Republicans rebuff Obama’s wildfire plan, press for action on House bill

Republicans rebuff Obama’s wildfire plan, press for action on House bill

By Kevin Rogers, Energy Guardian

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday rejected an Obama administration appeal to change the federal wildfire funding system, saying it failed to improve effective forest management. Instead, they pressed for Senate action on a House-passed bill that the White House “strongly opposes.”

On a call with reporters, House Natural Resources Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said any reform to the wildfire system would require updates to how the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service maintain federal forests.

“There’s no amount of increased funding that’s going to decrease the occurrence of catastrophic wildfires unless we provide the Forest Service with the tools they need to expand treatments to produce healthy fire-resistant forests,” Bishop said, calling the agencies’ current management program “pitiful.”

The remarks came in response to a letter Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Office and Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan sent to Congress last week, seeking reforms to the current system.

The officials called for discretionary spending caps they said would reduce the need for the agencies to divert funds from other programs, a process referred to as “fire borrowing.” The officials said the current system of funding, which bases firefighting budgets on a 10-year average, was inadequate to meet the needs of longer, more intense seasons.

“Due to longer fire seasons resulting from climate change, increased fuel loads in our forests and on our rangelands, and the expense associated with protecting lives and homes along an expanding wildland urban interface, the 10-year average keeps rising and will continue to rise,” the officials said.

The lawmakers said that approach would amount to a “Band-Aid” throwing more money at wildfires. They pressed for action on the Resilient Federal Forests Act, which the House approved in July by a vote of 262 to 167, with 19 Democrats in support.

The bill would allow the Forest Service and BLM to request funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after firefighting funds are depleted and require faster reforesting of burned acreage.

It would also seek to expedite forest management and timber projects through exempting some areas from environmental review, and discourage litigation by requiring plaintiffs to buy a bond to reimburse federal expenses if they lose the case.

The White House, however, in a Statement of Administration Policy, voiced opposition to the bill, saying it would “undermine collaborative forest restoration, environmental safeguards, and public participation across the National Forest System and public lands.”

The administration also faulted the bill’s FEMA provisions, arguing it would inappropriately strain disaster funds, though it stopped short of issuing a veto threat.

The administration prefers the approach offered by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would adjust discretionary spending caps and develop a separate wildfire disaster fund.

Daines, regardless of the administration’s stance, said that he’s leading an effort in the Senate to adopt the measure and working to win enough Democratic support to send it to President Obama’s desk.

“I think this fall we do have the best opportunity in recent memory to pass these reforms,” he said. “On the Senate side, we’re working with Republicans and Democrats alike to force a similar consensus to get something to the president’s desk this fall. I think it would be irresponsible and a missed opportunity to only address the wildfire funding issue without also passing reforms to improve the management of the forests in the first place.”

The legislation is set to be considered by the Senate Agriculture Committee in the coming weeks, Daines said.

According to the federal government’s tally, wildfires have already burned more than 8.5 million acres, and the Forest Service has been required to transfer an additional $700 million this year from non-fire accounts to fund suppression efforts.