E&E News: Lawmakers tuck wildfire compromise in flood insurance bill

Lawmakers tuck wildfire compromise in flood insurance bill
Marc Heller, E&E News reporter
Published: Wednesday, July 19, 2017Wildfire. Photo credit: National Park Service/Wikipedia
Lawmakers continue debating proposals for wildfire mitigation and response. National Park Service/Wikipedia
Lawmakers looking for a better way to pay for wildfires may have found an answer in the nation’s insurance program for floods.
 
Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) included a wildfire funding solution in a bill reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program, which they introduced Monday.
 
Their bill proposes treating fires similarly to natural disasters like floods and hurricanes, tapping a disaster relief fund to cover suppression. That’s an idea that has had wide support in Congress.
The broader measure would reauthorize the flood insurance program, which otherwise expires at the end of September, for six years. The bill, called the “National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act,” is numbered S. 1571.
 
Treating fires like natural disasters for budget purposes has enough support that it could pass Congress alone, lawyers and lobbyists say.
 
But the idea has had trouble advancing, especially in the House, where a number of lawmakers say any budget change needs to be accompanied by changes in forest management – such as fewer restrictions on thinning forests for timber.
 
The House Republican leadership hasn’t shown much interest in passing wildfire legislation without the management provisions, which would allow projects to go forward with less-stringent environmental reviews. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) is one of the leaders of that effort.
Crapo told E&E News yesterday that he supports many of the forest management measures his colleagues insist on but that he would rather address those separately.
 
“They generate more partisan opposition,” Crapo said. “As much as I’m supportive of them, I want to try to keep the wildfire-forest fire solution separate because there is such broad bipartisan and stakeholder support of it.”
 
The main question, Crapo said, is how a wildfire funding measure reaches the Senate floor. He said he believes the Senate leadership would support a vote on wildfire budgeting without attaching forest management.
 
In the House, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has proposed a similar solution, but lawmakers such as Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, have said a budgeting solution alone doesn’t address the fire risk posed by overgrown forests.
 
The Forest Service and the Interior Department have dipped into non-fire accounts 12 times since 2002 because fire costs exceeded the budget. Funds are restored later, but conservation groups say the borrowing hurts programs that maintain forest health.
 
Several conservation groups praised the Crapo-Brown bill.
 
“While most people associate wildfire funding with public land, it affects private land as well – in the form of fire borrowing or transfers,” said Tom Martin, president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation, in a news release. “Diverting these funds can be extremely disruptive to programming that helps ensure forest health across the country.”
 
The AFF and other groups representing conservation, outdoor sports and timber interests have formed a coalition called the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solutions.
 
In addition to the wildfire issue, the legislation includes many flood insurance changes including requiring that homebuyers be notified of flood risk before purchasing a property and requiring the NFIP to use the most up-to-date technology for flood mapping.
 
“We have held multiple hearings and worked on a bipartisan basis to hear thoughts and concerns from the Program’s stakeholders, regulators and from Banking Committee members,” Crapo and Brown said in a statement. “This bill represents the many areas where we have found agreement, and we look forward to working with our colleagues to address outstanding issues.”
 
Reporter Ariel Wittenberg contributed.

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