A deal to reform wildfire spending and increase the pace of forestry work was left out of the fiscal 2016 omnibus package amid opposition from key Senate leaders and environmentalists, dealing a blow to the Obama administration and the timber industry that had worked for weeks to iron out a deal.
It marks the second straight year the administration and a large contingent of allies — loggers, sportsmen and conservationists included — have failed to fundamentally reform how the Forest Service and Interior Department pay to fight increasingly expensive wildfires that are siphoning money from the agencies’ forest programs.
A deal crafted by a bipartisan group of senators and the Agriculture Department contained language aimed at preventing "fire borrowing," which happens when the Forest Service runs out of appropriated wildfire suppression money. It also would have allowed faster reviews for logging projects that follow certain environmental sideboards, among other provisions.
But the package, which was spearheaded by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), never curried favor from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), which likely doomed its passage.
In addition, while the deal carried the support of many sportsmen and conservation organizations, certain green groups pressured lawmakers to pass a "clean" wildfire budget fix — without what they viewed as harmful logging provisions.
"This was characterized as an anti-environmental rider certainly by Maria Cantwell and others," said Athan Manuel, a public lands advocate for the Sierra Club, who urged Congress to pass the "Wildfire Disaster Funding Act" next session under regular order. "They’re just trying to jam so many things in here that haven’t been vetted."
While Cantwell never publicized her views on the overall package, her spokeswoman over the weekend said the senator "opposes riders for clearcutting our federal forests."
Murkowski opposed the deal for different reasons.
First, she did not feel the proposed reforms did enough to expedite logging activities on federal forests. The language would allow the Forest Service to perform shorter National Environmental Policy Act reviews for forest restoration activities that retain old growth and consider best available science to maintain "ecological integrity."
A categorical exclusion could be used for projects up to 3,000 acres that are collaboratively planned to reduce hazardous fuels or protect municipal water sources or for projects up to 250 acres designed to create "early seral" habitats, which generally require more intensive cutting but can support more diverse wildlife.
"The management reforms as currently drafted would do little or nothing for the Alaska timber industry or for communities threatened by wildfire in our state," said Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon.
Murkowski also opposed the proposed funding fix, which would allow the agencies to access money from a new Stafford Act account designed to assist in wildfire suppression.
The fix appears to have borrowed ideas from three pieces of legislation: The administration-backed "Wildfire Disaster Funding Act," the House-passed H.R. 2647 by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and a proposal by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to require more investments in hazardous fuels work.
Like WDFA, the bill would only require the Forest Service and Interior budgets pay for 70 percent of anticipated wildfire costs. Similar to the McCain proposal, it would require a minimum amount of money — in this case 30 percent of anticipated wildfire costs — be invested in forest restoration and management activities, including hazardous fuels, in addition to money normally appropriated for those purposes. And like the Westerman bill, it would require a presidential declaration in order for the agencies to access disaster funding.
Dillon said that deal falls short of the funding fix Murkowski included in her fiscal 2016 spending bill, which the House rejected. Namely, there’s no guarantee that appropriators would provide the disaster funds necessary to prevent fire borrowing, he said.
"It also amounts to a repurposing of the Stafford Act — an unprecedented move that this administration rejected back in September," he said. "And its hasty passage could have unintended consequences, while still failing to solve the problem, leading to real problems during the next fire season."
Yet the deal appeared to have strong bipartisan support from senators from forested states. Democratic Sens. Wyden, Jon Tester of Montana, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republicans Steve Daines of Montana and Mike Crapo of Idaho, among others, were said to have collaborated on the package.
Sources said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was calling congressional offices last night with last-ditch hopes of getting the deal throw in to the spending bill.
In addition, roughly three dozen sportsmen’s organizations — a hook-and-bullet crowd that Republican senators tend to listen to — last week expressed support for a deal to reform wildfire budgeting and provide "additional authorities to the Forest Service and the BLM to expedite forest management projects that would return federal public lands to a more diverse set of habitat types."
Yet a contingent of conservation groups — Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center — lobbied Congress for only a "clean" funding fix with no forestry riders.
Some characterized the deal as a giveaway to timber interests.
"This ‘clearcuts for Christmas’ logging rider is profoundly destructive," said Chad Hanson, an ecologist for the John Muir Project in California. "If passed, it would severely restrict public participation, would exempt just about any commercial logging project on our federal public lands from environmental analysis and would allow logging projects [of] nearly 5 square miles, of any intensity, to be executed on our national forests so long as federal timber sale planners call them ‘fuels reduction’ projects with a wink and a nod."