BOISE, Idaho (AP) — There’s a sense of relief at the U.S. Forest Service because of the billions of additional dollars made available by lawmakers over the next decade to fight catastrophic wildfires but also a duty to spend it wisely, the acting chief of the U.S. Forest Service said Wednesday.
Vicki Christiansen, speaking at the National Interagency Fire Center about the recently approved Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, said the money will help the agency avoid raiding other parts of its budget and allow work to prevent wildfires while also tackling a backlog of trail and road maintenance.
“We really have an opportunity to put the work on the ground, improve the conditions of the national forests and create more opportunity for access and recreation as well,” she said.
Also taking part in the news conference was Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, of Idaho;
Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon; and Republican U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, both of Idaho. The lawmakers for about five years had been trying to pass the legislation to pay for catastrophic wildfires rather than using money from elsewhere in the Forest Service’s budget, a practice termed “fire borrowing.”
“The passage of our legislation to end fire borrowing means today that Westerners can celebrate an uncommon triumph for common sense,” Wyden said.
Previously, a 10-year average of firefighting spending was used to set the Forest Service’s wildfire fighting budget.
But the wildfire season has become longer and wildfires themselves more destructive in the last several decades. In 1990, the Forest Service spent about 13 percent of its budget on wildfires. Last year it reached 55 percent at $2.4 billion.
Experts at the National Interagency Fire Center at the news conference predicted another tough wildfire season this year for the U.S. West.
Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental watchdog, said his group generally backed the new law because of the negative impacts to campgrounds, trails and roads that the Forest Service couldn’t afford to maintain under the previous budgeting system. “It really has had a significant impact on Idahoans and other Americans’ ability to utilize and enjoy their public lands, so we see this as a big step forward,” he said.