WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had been edging toward a tussle with Congress for over a year on “fire borrowing” budget dilemmas, but he recently raised the stakes when he declared USDA agencies were “not going to borrow money this year” to pay for 2016 fire season costs.
Vilsack told an American Farm Bureau Federation audience in Orlando earlier this month that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), overseen by USDA, spent over $2.6 billion in 2015 – more than half of its total annual budget – to suppress wildfires on public and private lands.
To pay for the costs, USFS has, ironically, been taking funding from its forest resiliency programs, which are aimed at reducing the frequency and intensity of wildfires through the removal of “hazardous fuels,” like diseased and dead trees. The Interior Department has been doing the same to pay for its fire suppression activities.
“We’ve asked Congress to fix this” by designating the most extreme 1 to 2 percent of fires, which annually cost about 30 percent of USFS’ budget, as natural disasters to be mitigated with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dollars, instead of with USDA’s regular operating budget, Vilsack continued.
“I’m tired of borrowing money and, basically, bailing Congress out on this. We’re not going to borrow money this year.”
Vilsack put his new 2016 policy in writing and quietly sent it to the top Senate and House appropriators – Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran and Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers and Ranking Member Nita Lowey – last month. In his letters, Vilsack criticized Congress for failing to enact a firefighting budget fix in the recent omnibus spending bill, and clearly stated what he was going to do in response:
“I am directing the Forest Service to aggressively use the funding provided in FY 2016 to support forest management, restoration, research, and partnership work that will help us get ahead of the catastrophic wildfire problem,” he wrote. “Further, I will not authorize transfers from restoration and resilience funding.”
“If the amount Congress appropriated in FY 2016 is not sufficient to cover fire suppression costs,” Vilsack continued, “Congress will need to appropriate additional funding on an emergency basis.”
There are several wildfire bills pending in Congress. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced his Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S 235) last year that contained language Vilsack supported, and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, introduced his version (HR 167) last year as well. The Resilient Federal Forest Act (HR 2647), which was introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and passed by the House last summer, was incorporated into the language lawmakers were considering adding to the omnibus bill, according to Parish Braden, communications director for the House Natural Resources Committee.
Westerman’s bill would end fire borrowing by having FEMA cover fire-fighting cost overages, and would also expedite the environmental review processes required for selling salvaged timber and collaborative forest management projects.
Ultimately, the wildfire budget language wasn’t included in the omnibus bill, because “some folks in the Senate wanted to wait and address this (issue of fire borrowing) at a later date,” Braden told Agri-Pulse. However, the spending bill did allot $1.6 billion for fire suppression – $600 million more than the average federal cost of fighting wildfires over the past 10 years – as well as $545 million for hazardous fuels reduction, and $360 million for the Forest Service’s timber program.
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