Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bill would create wildfire account

Legislation introduced by Sen. Crapo and Sen. Wyden

Express Staff Writer

Concerned residents watch as firefighters work to suppress the Beaver Creek Fire, which burned more than 110,000 acres of land on the west side of the Wood River Valley last summer. Photo by Roland Lane

    A bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last week would create a wildfire funding account, reducing the need to take money from other programs when it’s needed in emergencies to fight big wildfires.
    The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013 was introduced by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
    “This is about as common-sense as it gets—Congress needs to fund the biggest, most catastrophic wildfires like the natural disasters they are, and free up funding to break the destructive cycle that underfunds fire prevention and shorts fire management,” Wyden said. “This bill ends that cycle, puts money back into prevention, and provides the resources agencies need to effectively protect rural communities and forests.”

We cannot afford another year of inadequate funding levels that force agencies to take away from already constrained programs.”
Cecilia Clavet
The Nature Conservancy

    According to a statement on Crapo’s website, agencies now base wildland fire suppression budgets on the average costs of the past 10 years, which has underestimated the actual costs during eight of the past 10 years, forcing the Forest Service and Interior Department to take money from other programs to make up the difference.
    This measure would move any fire suppression spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average to a disaster funding account separate from Forest Service and Interior budgets. The Interior Department and the Forest Service estimate 1 percent of fires consume 30 percent of firefighting budgets, and thus should be treated as natural disasters.
    Crapo said removing those megafires from the regular budget could free up to $412 million for land management agencies to fund fire-prevention and hazardous-fuels-reduction projects that can help break the cycle of increasingly dangerous and costly fires.
    A coalition of 12 conservation, timber, tribal, recreation, sportsmen and employer groups praised Wyden and Crapo for introducing the bill.
    “We need an approach to fire suppression funding which lets Forest Service manage the forests, instead of constantly moving funding to emergency suppression needs,” said Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resources Coalition. “Wildfire costs and fire borrowing disrupts forest management and other key programs. This bipartisan bill will help put the Forest Service back in the woods doing what they do best.”
    Rebecca Turner, senior director of programs and policy at American Forests, said, “Important USDA Forest Service programs can be and are significantly impacted by fire transfers, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, urban and community forestry, roads and trail maintenance, wildlife and recreation, including the very programs that would reduce wildfire risk, like State Fire Assistance and restoration. This new proposed mechanism will help stop this from happening.”
    In a news release, the organizations stated that since 2000, federal agencies have run out of money to fight emergency fires eight times.
    They pointed out that many factors contribute to the increase in wildfire frequency and severity, including changes in climate, buildup of hazardous fuels and increasing populations in the wildland-urban interface. The groups stated that during the past decade, fires have burned 57 percent more land than in the previous four decades. They said that since the 1970s, the fire season has expanded by two months and the average size of fires has increased by a factor of five.
    They contended that the frequency and severity of those wildfires need to be matched by significant levels of funding to protect people, water and wildlife.
    “We’re asking House and Senate appropriators to adopt the language in the Wyden-Crapo bill as they work to fund the remainder of fiscal 2014,” said Cecilia Clavet, senior policy advisor on fire and forest restoration for The Nature Conservancy. “We cannot afford another year of inadequate funding levels that force agencies to take away from already constrained programs, including the very ones that would decrease fire risk and costs like restoration.”
Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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