Congressional Negotiators Reach Deal On Wildfire Funding

Mar 21, 2018
Originally published on March 22, 2018 7:25 am

Congress appears to be ending a long impasse over how to attack the West's growing wildfire problem.

Negotiators say they've reached a deal to offload the costs of the most catastrophic fire seasons onto the nation's disaster relief budget.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., hailed the deal, calling it "an important step forward" in grappling with wildfire and forest health. He issued a statement just as Congress released the text of the omnibus spending bill that includes the wildfire and forest management provisions.

Walden also praised provisions that he said re-establish a federal aid program for timber-dependent counties.

Speaking earlier in the day, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said that it appeared the deal was "pretty close to what we've been fighting for in terms of ending the fire borrowing."

That's a reference to how the U.S. Forest Service has been increasingly forced to cut off funding for its other programs — including fire prevention — to pay firefighting costs that now take more than half of its overall budget.

Under the deal included in the massive spending bill going through Congress, the new wildfire provisions would not take effect until 2020. That means the Forest Service would have to face two more fire seasons before the change.

Western lawmakers have generally sought budget relief for the Forest Service on its firefighting costs. But House Republicans have also sought several forest management changes to boost logging levels on federal lands. They've argued this will raise money for Forest Service programs and reduce fuel loads.

In the end, Senate Democrats — who can block spending bills in their chamber — agreed to a more modest set of forest management changes.

It would ease environmental rules on some forest sales and partially reverse a federal court decision from Montana criticized by the timber industry. The Cottonwood case dealt with how federal management plans should be changed following new endangered species listings.

Randi Spivak, public lands director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the deal was "not as extreme" as the House legislation but is still "weakening environmental laws." And she cast doubt on how much good it would do in reducing the severity of wildland fires.

In addition, the deal includes reinstatement of federal aid to timber-dependent counties. The Secure Rural Schools program provided about $100 million a year for Oregon counties before it expired in 2015. It was not immediately clear how much was included in the new deal.

The wildfire and forest management package has been included in the massive spending bill that would keep the government open through September. It still has to be approved by both chambers.

Merkley said he was disappointed the package does not include a major boost in funding for projects to thin underbrush and small trees in forests most at risk of burning.

"Thinning those forests out creates jobs, creates a steady supply of saw-logs," Merkley said. "But often those projects can't pay for themselves because it's not as efficient as old-style clear-cutting."

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