Senate Ag Committee wants to snuff out 'fire borrowing'

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2015 - The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee took on the hotly debated topic of “fire borrowing” for the first time during a Thursday hearing, and even went as far as to publicly agree to try to end the practice.

USDA's Forest Service (USFS) and the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are forced to “borrow” funds from the budgets of their other programs to suppress wildfires every year.

Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in his opening statement that this “disruptive” strategy ends up gutting funding for “vital activities like preventive active forest management and hazardous fuels reductions” that ironically, help to prevent wildfires from starting.

“The Forest Service readily admits that nearly half of the acres of the National Forest System are at high risk of devastating insect infestations, disease and catastrophic wildfires,” resulting in dramatic increases in fire suppression costs, Roberts said.

In 1994, $1.6 billion - less than a fifth of USFS's budget - was spent on fighting wildfires, but by 2014, the figure had risen to $3.9 billion, about half of the agency's budget. This year, the agency exhausted its $1.3 billion fire-fighting budget in August, close to the middle of the fire season.

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“The status quo is unacceptable,” Roberts said. “Congress must focus on this issue.”

In her opening statement, the panel's ranking member, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said “it's time these transfers stop,” and offered up the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S 235), sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Idaho Republican Mike Crapo, as a way to do just that.

The bill would allow USFS and BLM to request additional fire fighting funding from Congress once they had exhausted their fire suppression resources.

Stabenow “applauded” the bipartisan legislation, which also sets budget allocations for fire suppression operations for fiscal years 2016 through 2025, and said “the Senate should pass this bill immediately.”

Roberts, on the other hand, didn't endorse the bill. However, the witnesses at the hearing - all six of them - said the Wyden-Crapo bill would be an effective way of addressing the fire borrowing issue and would help keep forest management funding where it's needed most.

“Forest stewardship projects… throughout the West are essential for the development of young forest habitats where elk, deer, moose and other game and non-game wildlife prosper,” testified Daniel Dessecker, director of conservation policy for the Ruffed Grouse Society.

“Hunting is big business,” Dessecker said. Elk and deer hunters number around 11 million nationally, he said, and contribute “a substantial portion of the $34 billion” hunters generate for the U.S. economy.

“We have to increase our efforts to address” the health of young forests - away from fighting fires - so that “species of great ecological… and economic importance” can survive, he continued. “A failure to do so… would be irresponsible.”

Ken Stewart, who serves as the chairman of the board of trustees for the American Forest Foundation, which represents some of the nation's 22 million private forestland owners, testified it was critical that efforts to restore forest health became the Forest Service's top priority once again.

“While only 30 percent of the West is forested, some 65 percent of the West's water supply is cleaned and stored by forests,” Stewart testified. “This natural filtration and storage is essential for no less than 64 million Westerners who rely on surface water flowing from forested headwaters to meet their daily needs.”

Chris Treese, manager of external affairs with the Colorado River Conservation District, explained that healthy forests mitigate droughts and floods, foster healthy soils, filter and decompose pollutants, provide wildlife habitat and high-quality water resources.

When affected by wildfire, forest soils harden and lose their ability to filter contamination and sedimentation out of water, and no longer have the same water storage capacity. Ultimately, these effects “interrupt water storage opportunities, obstruct hydropower generation, hinder water delivery and adversely affect downstream communities and ecosystems,” Treese said.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said he'd seen the effect wildfires have on water quality, and “anybody who is downstream of these headwaters in Colorado needs to care about the condition of the forests.”

And because wildfire knows no bounds - it can spread across private, state and federal lands and strike across the U.S., Americans need to remember “we're all in this together,” Bennet said.


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“We are one nation - I can't think of an issue where it's more true. What we're doing right now (with fire borrowing) fails the test of fiscal responsibility, it fails the test of anybody's perspective on what federalism means, and I hope that we'll be able to get this (Wyden-Crapo) legislation passed.”

In addition to fixing the fire-fighting budget, the Republicans on the committee indicated they would like to see more “streamlined” policies for compliance with federal laws that would help forest managers complete forest thinning or harvesting projects in National Forests more quickly, and, as Roberts said, with less risk of “frivolous lawsuits.” The laws they cited included the National Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The GOP has its own legislation on fire borrowing - the House passed Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman's Resilient Federal Forest Act (HR 2647) this summer.

Westerman's bill would end fire borrowing by having the Federal Emergency Management Agency cover USFS or BLM's fire fighting cost overages, and also expedite the environmental review processes required for selling salvaged timber and for collaborative forest management projects on less than 15,000 acres.

The legislation would also require that 75 percent of burned areas be reforested within five years, a steep increase from the 3 percent reforestation rate the USFS accomplishes currently.

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