The political divisiveness in Washington, D.C., may make advancing sensible legislation seem nearly impossible. But, legislation ending fire borrowing was pushed over the finish line by a group of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and both Houses of Congress. I have been proud to be a part of this effort that will better enable agencies to fight wildfires like the disasters they truly are and reduce wildfire risks.
As wildfires intensify across the West, wildland firefighting costs are escalating and often far exceed budget estimates. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that suppression costs have increased from nearly $240 million in 1985 to more than $2.9 billion in 2017. This has resulted in agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management diverting funds from important projects that improve the health of our forests and enable recreational activities on our public lands to covering pressing wildfire suppression costs. This practice, known as fire borrowing, results in less resources for the very activities that can prevent large, devastating fires, and the harmful fire cycle worsens as forest health projects are tabled.
In 2013, I joined fellow Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, in introducing legislation to end fire borrowing, and we worked steadily over the years with a bipartisan group of fellow senators and representatives to use any legislative opportunity to stop the erosion of the Forest Service’s and BLM’s budgets and ramp up fire prevention projects. As part of this effort, last fall, Sen. Wyden and I led a bipartisan letter, also supported by fellow Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, to Senate leadership urging the inclusion of the fix in any disaster aid packages passed by Congress. We wrote, “This fix is long overdue and people throughout the West desperately need our help.” Sen. Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, were instrumental in the enactment of the fire borrowing fix.
The law not only improves federal budgeting for wildfires by permitting disaster relief funds to be accessed when fire suppression expenditures exceed their 10-year average but also includes forest management reforms that will result in significant positive impacts on forest health. The law expanded the Good Neighbor Program to allow for needed road reconstruction. The Good Neighbor Program has improved the federal government’s ability to partner with state foresters on restoration projects across state-federal boundaries. The new law would also permanently renew the Federal Land Transfer Facilitation Act, which allows federal agencies to conserve sensitive wildlife habitats and historic and cultural resources and protect water quality through conservation projects that consolidate public-private land ownership. Another provision would expand stewardship contracts to up to 20 years to further the benefit of these forest and range land stewardship projects. Stewardship contracts are an important component of the efforts to achieve land management goals on public lands that meet local and rural community needs.
These are just some of the bipartisan improvements included in the law that will make progress in the way wildfires are addressed by treating them like other natural disasters and improve the health of our forests. I commend my congressional colleagues for perseverance in pushing this important part of the solution over the finish line and look forward to continuing to work with them and others to ensure forest managers and firefighters have the resources they need to improve the health of our forests to reduce the threat to our communities and ensure the continued enjoyment and productivity of our public lands.