Wildfire: No Budget Overhaul, but ‘Borrowing’ Likely Averted in 2016

WILDFIRE: No budget overhaul, but ‘borrowing’ likely averted in 2016

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Published: Thursday, December 17, 2015

While Congress’s fiscal 2016 spending package provides no long-term funding overhauls for wildfire, it does provide a one-time boost in suppression cash to prevent the disruptive practice of “fire borrowing.”

The package would provide $2.1 billion for wildfire suppression, nearly $600 million above what the government has spent annually, on average, battling fires over the past decade.

That’s a key break from past spending bills that have funded Forest Service and Interior Department wildfire suppression at the 10-year average.

Previous levels led to frequent funding shortfalls as the cost of wildfire quickly rises due to drought, overstocked forests and increasing housing developments in the wildland-urban interface. When suppression funding runs out, the Forest Service must borrow from non-fire accounts and put some forest stewardship projects on hold.

While that’s happened eight times since 2002, it likely won’t occur next year since Congress would be funding the agencies well above projected wildfire costs.

The bill provides the Forest Service $811 million for suppression and places $823 million in the FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Fund, which can be accessed once the base suppression funds run out. Those accounts combined are more than a half-billion dollars above the 10-year average.

The FLAME account was established in 2009 with passage of the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act — Congress’ earlier attempt to fix fire borrowing. The accounts were intended to be funded “above and beyond” the 10-year average cost to suppress wildfires, but in practice that has not happened.

While forest advocates were lobbying hard for Congress to pass a more permanent wildfire funding fix that would have provided agencies access to wildfire disaster funds, the temporary funding boost was seen as a silver lining.

“This year’s spending bill is a real improvement over the status quo, but there is far, far more to do to protect communities in Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho and across the United States that are threatened by wildfire every year,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who spearheaded a bipartisan deal to overhaul wildfire budgeting and expedite logging that he and other senators wanted to include in the omnibus spending bill.

The Wyden-led deal would have set up a new wildfire disaster account under the Stafford Act and would have streamlined forestry work designed to gird forests against future fires, but it was opposed by Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

The funding boost is a stopgap solution to give Congress time to pass a permanent funding fix through regular order, Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said.

“The omnibus unveiled this morning provides real money for fire suppression — available immediately — for the Forest Service, which will address the fire-borrowing issue for the next year,” Dillon said in an email yesterday. Murkowski “opposes attempts by Senator Wyden and the administration to attach ineffective language to the omnibus.”

The bill also would provide modest increases for the Forest Service to up hazardous fuels removal and to plan timber sales.

Cecilia Clavet of the Nature Conservancy said the one-time funding boost suggests Congress is trying to follow the spirit of the FLAME Act.

“This will be a very good relief for the Forest Service and Department of the Interior for the next year,” she said. “This is not a long-term solution.”


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