WILDFIRE

White House, logging groups make dueling pitches over budget fix

The Obama administration and the timber industry yesterday made dueling pitches to Congress on how to fix the nation's wildfire and forest health challenges, hoping to sway an influential group of senators who have pledged to tackle the problems head on this fall.

Top officials from the White House and Interior and Agriculture departments sent a letter to members urging Congress to adopt the "Wildfire Disaster Funding Act," a bipartisan bill that would prevent those agencies from having to pilfer money from their non-fire programs to fight increasingly costly wildland blazes, a disruptive process known as fire "borrowing."

On the other side, a coalition of timber industry groups led by the Federal Forest Resource Coalition sent a letter to Capitol Hill urging senators to pass H.R. 2647, a House-passed bill backed mostly by Republicans that would also prevent borrowing while giving the U.S. Forest Service streamlined authority to log more trees and make forests less susceptible to future wildfires.

Both visions will get plenty of attention as Western senators try to hammer out a funding and management fix in time for the next wildfire season (E&ENews PM, Aug. 6).

The letters came one day after USDA informed Congress that it needs to transfer an additional $250 million to cover a shortfall in wildfire money for the remainder of the month, bringing the 2015 borrowing total to $700 million.

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Two major issues are whether federal agencies should continue budgeting for the full anticipated costs of wildfires and whether funding relief should be paired with provisions to accelerate forest treatments to lower future wildfire costs.

The administration's solution was included in President Obama's fiscal 2016 budget and mimics language in H.R. 167, by Reps. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), and S. 235, by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). It would allow the agencies to fight wildfires using disaster funds once their budgets have paid for 70 percent of the anticipated costs of fighting wildfires.

That approach, according to the letter, would provide budget room for the Forest Service to treat an additional 1 million acres annually and provide for an additional 300 million board feet of annual timber harvests. Interior could increase the number of acres treated annually by 500,000 acres and redouble efforts to protect the fragile sage-steppe ecosystem, it said.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would prevent wildfire borrowing while addressing the rising cost of wildfires that are crowding out federal investments in logging, hazardous fuel removal and forest restoration that reduce long-term wildfire costs, the letter states.

"The rising costs of fighting wildfires come at the expense of other programs that reduce the risk of catastrophic fires, increase the ability of our lands to recover from fire, and help protect communities and infrastructure," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. "The president's budget and a bipartisan group in Congress recognize this and have a commonsense solution -- treat catastrophic wildfires like the natural disasters they are."

The House bill touted yesterday by the timber industry coalition would take a different approach.

It would provide disaster funds to fight wildfires, but only after the agencies have spent 100 percent of the anticipated cost of wildfires, a tweak likely aimed at appeasing fiscal conservatives who believe the agencies should continue to fight the full cost of wildfire within their appropriated budgets.

But H.R. 2647, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), would also provide significant new authorities for forest managers to perform expedited National Environmental Policy Act reviews to approve logging projects that reduce wildfire risks, increase forest resilience to insects and disease, protect water supplies, or enhance habitat for at-risk species, particularly if those projects were approved through a collaborative process.

In addition, the bill would require groups that sue to block collaboratively planned forest projects to post a bond to cover the government's anticipated legal costs. If the suing party loses, it would forfeit the bond.

The timber coalition said it supports efforts to prevent wildfire borrowing but urged such language also be paired with reforms to forest management.

"H.R. 2647 contains provisions intended to both address the disruption caused by fire borrowing and expedite needed forest management to improve the health and vitality of our federal forests," said the letter signed by dozens of groups, including the American Forest Resource Council, American Forest and Paper Association, and American Farm Bureau Federation. "These projects are routine, recurring activities with known effects, and therefore should qualify for exclusions from repeated, extensive analysis."

The letter noted the bill's acreage limits for using so-called categorical exclusions -- typically 5,000 acres but up to 15,000 acres for certain collaboratively planned projects. It called any bill that only fixes wildfire budgeting a "half measure."

White House 'strongly opposes' GOP measure

The Westerman bill passed the House on July 9 on a 262-167 vote, with all but 19 Democrats opposing it.

While it carries support from dozens of logging and sportsmen's groups, as well as many American Indian tribes, the Obama administration "strongly opposes" it.

In a July 8 statement, the administration said the bill falls short of fixing the wildfire budget problem and would "undermine collaborative forest restoration, environmental safeguards, and public participation."

The administration reiterated those concerns in yesterday's letter, saying the bill "is incompatible with the federal government's natural disaster management needs because it does not address the long-term shift in the Forest Service's budget and the escalating percent of the Forest Service budget devoted to fire suppression."

"We urgently need to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs -- instead of leaving our agencies and the States scrambling to plug budget gaps while they are literally putting out fires," Shaun Donovan, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement.

But House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) yesterday criticized the White House's approach as half-baked, touting Westerman's bill as "a holistic approach that improves forest resiliency."

"Changing the way we pay for wildfire suppression is only one small part of a much more serious land management crisis that we must address -- now," Bishop said in a statement. "Our national forests are unhealthy, overgrown and highly susceptible to insects, disease and devastating wildfire. We have 60 million acres at high risk to catastrophic wildfire -- we need to treat these forests immediately."

The committee argued that data from the Forest Service obtained last month by Greenwire undercut the administration's "singular" focus on borrowing. While the agency has transferred $3.2 billion from non-wildfire programs since 2002, only $10 million of it has come from the agency's hazardous fuels program used to reduce future fire severity, the data show (Greenwire, Aug. 18).

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