A group of nine bipartisan senators reintroduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017 in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. The bill, which is similar to legislation introduced in the House in June, would change how the federal government budgets for the suppression of large wildfires to make that process similar to the way other disasters are funded. The original sponsors of the legislation are Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
The bill’s approach to funding wildfire suppression meets all the criteria necessary for a comprehensive solution, including: 1) addressing the continued erosion of agency budgets that results from increasing suppression costs, 2) accessing disaster funding for extraordinarily costly fires and 3) significantly reducing the need to “borrow” from non-suppression accounts and programs.
Currently, wildfire suppression is funded at increasing levels that chip away at important conservation programs. Those same programs are further strained through the practice of “borrowing” when wildfire suppression levels do not meet the suppression needs. A few weeks ago, the USDA Forest Service transferred $300 million from other accounts to meet its current suppression needs, and even that may not be enough to meet those needs through the end of the fiscal year.
“We are on track for a record-setting fire season this year—both in terms of costs and acres burned—underscoring how urgent it is that we fix the budgeting model for federal firefighting,” said Lynn Scarlett, Co-Chief External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy. “This bill is essential for meeting our nation’s growing need to fund wildfires like disasters. Fighting large wildfires must not be done at the expense of the very programs that are designed to reduce wildfire risk, such as forest restoration and hazardous fuels reduction. That’s why The Nature Conservancy strongly supports this bipartisan bill as a comprehensive solution that could help fix this country’s wildfire funding problem.”
In 1995, wildfire activities made up 15 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, and today, they make up more than 50 percent. Despite that growth in fire costs, overall agency funding levels have remained flat. This shift has led to significant funding reductions in almost all non-fire programs. And yet, even those amounts of funding have rarely met suppression needs, resulting in the need to “borrow.” Since 2002, agencies have exceeded their budgets to fight wildfires 13 times and have had to borrow funds from other programs.
This bill is similar to the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015, which earned more than 150 bipartisan cosponsors in the House but did not receive a vote before the congressional session ended. When the House introduced a similar bill in 2015, more than 200 organizations–including the Conservancy–signed a letter supporting the legislation, demonstrating broad support from conservation, timber, tribal, recreation, sportsmen and employer groups.