Vilsack, Wyden rally to bolster support for 'fire borrowing' legislation

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 28, 2015 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., held a teleconference Friday afternoon from Oregon, where wildfires are raging, to stress the necessity of reforming the wildfire suppression budget.

Vilsack told reporters that for the first time in U.S. Forest Service (USFS) history, more than half  - 52 percent - of the agency's budget will be put toward fighting fires. By comparison, in 1995, fire suppression only made up 19 percent of the budget. Every week, the agency is doling out $150 million to fight the flames, Vilsack said from Portland, and the severity and costs of the fires this season are only expected to worsen.

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The extreme nature of this year's fire season is due to “a terrible trifecta” Wyden said, of “very hot temperatures, very serious drought and massive fuels built-up on the forest floors.”

“My concern is that for much of the West, this could be the new norm,” Wyden continued. “What we need to do is have a comprehensive set of reforms put in place to deal with it, and it really starts with the legislation to stop 'fire borrowing.'”

“Fire borrowing” happens when USFS or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have to dip into the budgets of other programs to suppress fires. Ironically, the programs that the agencies “fire borrow” from - namely forest restoration and hazardous fuels reduction programs  - are often crucial to preventing fires in the first place.

The $1.3 billion allocated by Congress to fight wildfires this year has already been spent and the fire borrowing has begun, Vilsack said. About 30 percent of the fire budget this year was spent on fighting the fires, but those dollars could have been better spent on fire prevention initiatives, Vilsack argued.

Vilsack and Wyden said the way to fix the fire budget process is to designate the top 1 to 2 percent of the most destructive and costly fires as “catastrophic.” That way, USFS is able to tap into natural disaster funding to pay for fire suppression instead of having to drain preventative programming.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S 235) - which has been introduced several times by Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho - would allow USDA and BLM to draw from emergency or disaster accounts whenever the costs of fighting wildfires exceeds 70 percent of the 10-year average cost for wildfire suppression.

Wyden said opponents of the bill say it would allow for “a back-door spending spigot,” but “that argument just isn't going to fly… the budget analysis (of the bill) says it's not true.”

More than 250 forestry, trade, wildlife and other organizations have come out in support of the legislation, Wyden added, and now all Western senators "are on the same page…working with a conservative Republican Budget (Committee) chairman,” and saying in unison “'This has to get fixed'” in September.

The House recently passed “fire borrowing” legislation of its own in July - called the Resilient Federal Forests Act (HR 2647) - that would allow for the transfer of funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fight wildfires.

It would also provide categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act for “critical response actions,” salvage logging operations in response to catastrophic events, and forest management for early successional forests. Per this provision, USFS would not have to perform an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement before conducting these activities, which proponents of the House bill say would help the agency clean up hazardous fuels faster.

Vilsack said the private sector is “stepping up” their lobbying efforts to get the Senate bill passed because they understand just how big of an economic driver National Forests are in rural America for recreation and forest industries. The have also have felt the loss of seven of “our bravest and best” firefighters since March 30, putting “an even more intense spotlight on the need for action,” Vilsack said.

A memorial service to honor fallen firefighters Richard Wheeler, Andrew Zajac and Tom Zbyszewski will be held Aug. 30 in Wenatchee, Washington. The funeral procession will begin near the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest where the Twisp River Fire took their lives on Aug. 19.

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