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Can Congress solve the Forest Service's wildfire funding conundrum?

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The West is in the midst of another intense wildfire season. Recent weeks have seen dangerous fires from Nevada to Montana. A state of emergency has been declared in Arizona. With President Donald Trump proposing to cut the Forest Service's firefighting budget by nearly $300 million, the question of how to manage and fund wildfire suppression on public lands has again reared its head.

Over the past decade, as wildfire season has lengthened and fires have grown more severe, firefighting has claimed more and more of the Forest Service's funds, accounting for 56 percent of its overall budget in 2016. Conservatives in Congress have long tried to push legislation that, though ostensibly geared toward wildfire risk reduction, would benefit the timber industry. And with a Republican majority and an administration intent on rolling back environmental-review processes, such legislation may gain even more traction.

First introduced in 2015, the Resilient Federal Forests Act is one such attempt. The only self-described forester in Congress, Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., reintroduced the bill in the House last month. "This legislation will streamline the permitting process for proactive thinning projects while simultaneously ensuring reforestation activities," cosponsor Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said in a press release.

That "streamlining" would be done in part through expanding the use of categorical exclusions. The exemptions would increase the acreage that could be thinned or logged without public input and full environmental review, from 3,000 acres currently to 10,000 acres. The bill would also allow the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to skip required consultations with the Fish and Wildlife Service if the agencies say a project isn't likely to harm federally protected species.

The House Natural Resources Committee has approved the legislation, with a vote expected in the House later this month. Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in a press release that the bill will "increase the pace, scale and cost efficiency of forest management projects without sacrificing environmental protections."

How the Forest Service’s budget has changed over 20 years. - DATA VISUALIZATION: BROOKE WARREN/HIGH COUNTRY NEWS SOURCE: THE RISING COST OF WILDFIRE  OPERATIONS: EFFECTS ON THE FOREST SERVICE’S NON-FIRE WORK, USDA, FS, AUG 4, 2015
  • DATA VISUALIZATION: BROOKE WARREN/HIGH COUNTRY NEWS SOURCE: THE RISING COST OF WILDFIRE OPERATIONS: EFFECTS ON THE FOREST SERVICE’S NON-FIRE WORK, USDA, FS, AUG 4, 2015
  • How the Forest Service’s budget has changed over 20 years.

But environmentalists—and House Democrats—disagree, citing concerns that the bill would fast-track logging projects and sidestep environmental considerations. The bill is "a wish list for the timber industry," says Susan Jane Brown, wildlands program director and staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, noting that the Forest Service didn't ask for the expansion of categorical exclusions. "It's the timber industry pushing forward with that ask throughout the bill," Brown says.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act also addresses wildfire management funding, an increasingly urgent problem. In 1995, the Forest Service dedicated 16 percent of its budget to firefighting. That number had risen to over 50 percent by 2015. Currently, fire suppression costs are subject to a budget cap based on the average cost over the last ten years. When costs go higher, agencies like the Forest Service are forced to use resources allotted for other purposes—so-called fire-borrowing. This practice translates to less money for other important programs, including those meant to reduce future fire danger. Under this bill, the Forest Service and the BLM would be able to tap into Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to fight catastrophic fires.

The Western Governors' Association, which has long sought to end fire-borrowing, suggests that a "comprehensive solution should address capacity constraints and allow for a predictable program of work for agencies to fulfill their management responsibilities," according to a spokesperson. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, first introduced in 2013, represents a more comprehensive alternative, at least when it comes to funding. Introduced again in June by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the bill would create a new funding process under which agencies' disaster budget caps could be adjusted as the cost of fighting wildfires increases. The bill has the support of major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, and enjoys bipartisan support in the House, with over 60 cosponsors, while the Resilient Federal Forests Act has only eight.

Both bills have failed to make it through Congress in the past, and that could be the case again. But Brown notes that parts of a piecemeal bill like the Resilient Federal Forests Act could be "plucked out" and attached to must-pass legislation that would be more challenging to stop. "The potential for doing harm is high with this Congress," she says.

Rebecca Worby is an editorial fellow at High Country News, where this article was originally published.

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