The spending bill Congress is considering includes a major, bipartisan effort to overhaul how the U.S. government spends money to fight wildfires on federal land.
The provision in the omnibus appropriations bill, released publicly late Wednesday, is meant to cut down on a practice known as “fire borrowing” in which agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management move money meant to reduce fire risks and use it to fight fires.
It also would allow federal agencies to access disaster funds for particularly expensive fires.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has for years been pushing the policies to give firefighting agencies more predictability in budgeting and cut down on taking funds from other areas.
The problem has been exacerbated in recent years as wildfires have grown more costly and deadlier, due to factors like climate change, drought and increasing development, according to federal researchers and land managers.
“Pacific Northwest lawmakers have worked together to force Congress to finally address the persistent shortfalls in our nation’s wildland firefighting budgets,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a leader in the fire effort, said in a statement.
“This puts an end to fire-borrowing and is a start to giving the Forest Service the predictable resources they need to reduce hazardous fuels. This funding boost will allow the Forest Service to prioritize work in areas closest to communities, in order to save lives and reduce the risk of property damage, while still protecting essential public lands and existing environmental laws.”
“The FY18 Omnibus spending bill might be one of the most critical pieces of legislation for western members I have seen since coming to Congress,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).
“It is long past due that wildfires in the west receive equal treatment with other natural disasters and this bill delivers the necessary budget changes to stop the dangerous practice of fire borrowing that has led to catastrophic wildfires in Idaho and throughout the West.”
The wildfire policy garnered praise from various interests, including conservation advocates and the forestry industry.
“In the wake of last year’s devastating megafires, today’s agreement is an absolutely essential step towards reducing fire threats and improving the safety of local communities by restoring the health of America’s forests,” said Colin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation.
“This deal is a result of years of tireless advocacy by bipartisan champions from the Senate and House, conservation organizations, the forest products industry, and state governors and county governments — all of whom joined forces to address this growing crisis — and Congress must ensure its passage in the final omnibus bill,” he said.
“This bi-partisan fix will address both the budgetary erosion that has been occurring for the past ten years, as well as the ‘fire borrowing’ from other programs when funds have been exhausted,” said Tom Martin, president of the American Forest Foundation.
But Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, slammed the provision, saying it should have included reforms to increase removal of brush and trees from federal land.
“It doesn’t solve the problem. Solving the problem is stopping the damn fires, not spending more money to put them out once they get started,” Bishop said Thursday.
Republicans have supported Bishop’s proposals in the past, and the forestry industry would benefit from increased logging. He blamed Senate Democrats from eastern states, “who don’t know what a forest looks like,” for blocking his suggestions.
“So there’ll be another fire season, it’ll be the [Senate Minority Leader Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] Fire Season of 2018. And everything will burn again, simply because they don’t understand how to actually solve a problem.”
The House could vote on the bill as early as Thursday. The Senate would then have to vote. President Trump would likely sign it if passed.