WILDFIRES: White House in Talks to Reform Budgeting, Streamline NEPA

White House in talks to reform budgeting, streamline NEPA

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, December 4, 2015

LAS VEGAS — The White House is trying to cut a deal with Congress to overhaul how the nation budgets for wildfire and allow some streamlined logging in national forests, according to multiple sources close to Capitol Hill.

The deal would be bundled into the omnibus bill to fund the government through the rest of fiscal 2016, according to those familiar.

The White House and a large contingent of Republicans and Democrats have been trying for years to reform how the Forest Service and Interior Department pay for wildfires, which have grown larger and more expensive as a result of drought, overgrown forests and increased housing development in the wildland-urban interface.

Reform proponents want the omnibus to include the bipartisan “Wildfire Disaster Funding Act<http://www.eenews.net/bills/114/Senate/200215152604.pdf>,” which would allow a portion of wildfires to be fought using disaster funding outside the agencies’ discretionary budgets. The proposal would eliminate “fire borrowing,” the siphoning of money from non-fire accounts when wildfire suppression funding runs dry.

But the timber industry, sportsmen’s groups and lawmakers from forested states have argued the budget overhaul must be accompanied by reforms to expedite logging projects that could lessen the intensity of future wildfires, which could reduce suppression costs and create jobs. They’re lobbying to include provisions in the omnibus that could streamline the National Environmental Policy Act review process.

Timber industry officials are cautiously optimistic about the deal, since loggers stand to benefit from both the budget and management reforms.

“We don’t know the details,” said Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, whose members rely on timber from public lands.

“Fixing fire funding is very important to us,” he said. But it’s also “very important to us to get new NEPA tools in the hands of the Forest Service.”

Some conservation groups are willing to stomach concessions that hasten logging in exchange for more robust funding for the Forest Service and Interior. Other groups are likely to fight a deal, fearing it would gut NEPA and promote unnatural fire regimes.

“The American public does not want clearcuts for Christmas on our national forests,” said Chad Hanson, an ecologist for the John Muir Project in California. “This logging rider is a sham and is completely inconsistent with current science and the recommendations of over 260 scientists.”

But there’s bipartisan support for pairing wildfire budget reforms with expedited forest treatments, as evidenced by a bipartisan letter<http://www.amforest.org/images/pdfs/FINAL_Fire_Borrowing-Forest_Management_Letter.pdf> sent to House appropriators Nov. 19.

“Solving the fire-borrowing problem alone is the equivalent of treating the symptoms but not the underlying disease,” said the letter signed by 43 members including Democrats Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Jim Costa of California. “Even if Congress fixes fire-borrowing, land management agencies are subject to constant red tape and legal threats that hinder their ability to carry out the needed operations to protect and improve federal landscapes.”

Sources say the White House wants a deal to pass WDFA, which is among its top policy goals. It has opposed forestry reform bills such as the House-passed H.R. 2647<http://www.eenews.net/bills/114/House/150915160918.pdf> by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), though observers say the administration is open to compromises.

A key question is whether the deal would include WDFA as written — as the White House would prefer — or a scaled-back version of it.

Details in flux

WDFA is strongly opposed by fiscal conservatives because it would have the Forest Service and Interior pay for 70 percent of the anticipated cost of wildfire, with the rest funded by an off-budget disaster account. That provision aims to free up room in the agencies’ budgets to fund more logging and restoration projects that could make forests more resistant to catastrophic blazes.

Senate appropriators earlier this year agreed to a deal to provide disaster funding for wildfires, but only after the agencies have spent 100 percent of anticipated suppression costs. The Obama administration has rejected that arrangement, saying it does nothing to protect non-fire accounts from being squeezed by rising wildfire costs.

The contours of the deal are in flux. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is said to be waiting on Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) to iron out an agreement.

Negotiators are said to be considering letting disaster funding kick in for the costliest blazes, known as “type 1” fires, as opposed to being triggered once an overall suppression funding threshold has been passed.

As for streamlining provisions, negotiators may be looking to mimic the bipartisan success of the 2014 farm bill, which included a provision allowing categorical exclusions for timber projects up to 3,000 acres in size that address insect and disease threats. Such projects must also follow several environmental sideboards, including that they maximize retention of old-growth trees, consider best available science, are developed through a collaborative process, do not result in new permanent roads, comply with forest plans, and do not affect wilderness or wilderness study areas.

Western governors plan to discuss wildfire and forest management today at the Western Governors’ Association winter meeting here.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), the association’s incoming chairman, said he plans to highlight the need for more hands-on management.

“Active management of forests can help mitigate wildfire risk, improve wildlife habitat, put logs on trucks and really provide an economic base for our rural communities,” he said, pledging to take a “hard look at land management practices” later today.

Tags: , , , ,