‘Big win’ for USFS and western states will end fire borrowing
The U.S. Forest Service will no longer have to raid other programs to pay for firefighting, with a $2.25 billion contingency fund specifically for firefighting included in the federal omnibus appropriations act passed on March 22.
The contingency fund will end a practice that’s been termed “fire-borrowing,” where the U.S. Forest Service has had to transfer money from programs including fuels treatment and forest health to combat wildfires.
The new emergency fund doesn’t kick in for two years, but the act appropriates $500 million above the 10-year average for firefighting for this year, according to Mike Anderson, senior policy analyst for the Wilderness Society and a member of the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative.
A similar increase is anticipated for next year, which area experts hope will be sufficient so that borrowing from other programs is no longer necessary, said Anderson. The collaborative is a diverse group of stakeholders who work on forest restoration in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
“It’s very good news for everyone working on Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest management, whether recreation, timber sales or monitoring,” said Anderson. “Stop-work orders would go out in August or early September as the Forest Service ran out of money.”
The contingency fund will increase by $100 million annually until it reaches $2.95 billion in fiscal year 2027, according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.
Many members of Congress from Western states have been lobbying for this funding fix for years. This year they were able to reach a bipartisan agreement, said Bryan Watt, press secretary for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
“Just ending fire borrowing and making sure there is money for mitigation has been a huge priority for Cantwell. This is the big win,” said Watt.
If the funding is used, the Secretary of Agriculture will be required to report to Congress on decision-making and other factors that led them to use the fund.
Over the past decade, the Forest Service has received appropriations for firefighting on a rolling 10-year average while the overall budget remained relatively flat. As fire seasons grew longer and fires more catastrophic, fire suppression consumed a larger percentage of the overall agency budget, according to Perdue. Last year, wildland fire suppression cost more than $2.5 billion nationwide — the most expensive year on record — he said.
“Improving the way we fund wildfire suppression will help us better manage our forests. If we ensure that we have adequate resources for forest management, we can mitigate the frequency of wildfires and severity of future fire seasons,” said Perdue.
In addition to forest health, the Forest Service will be able to use the monies for recreation and other programs that have been shortchanged over the years.
“There will be fewer interruptions in Forest Service management activities that have been a regular and disruptive occurrence for the past decade or so. The Forest Service won’t be required to stop doing everything to fight fires,” said Anderson.
The funding act also eliminates the requirement for an in-depth environmental review for hazardous-fuels-reduction projects up to 300,000 acres. There will still be an opportunity for public comment, but not the standard appeal process, said Anderson.
Funding for other Forest Service programs such as recreation and trails maintenance was held constant in the act approved by Congress, an improvement over major cuts in Pres. Trump’s original budget proposal, said Anderson.
The Forest Service is still working out the details of how the new funding will work, said Dru Fenster, their acting national press officer. “This solution will allow us to focus on getting work done on the ground more consistently, including the many non-fire-related functions we manage, improve overall forest health, and keep wildfires from threatening lives, homes and communities,” the agency said in a statement.
The omnibus appropriations act also funds Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), programs of particular importance to Okanogan County and almost 800 other counties across the country with large areas of nontaxable federal land.
Last year, Okanogan County received only $180,000 in SRS monies, split 50-50 between county roads and schools, according to County Treasurer Leah Mc Cormack. The new appropriation should restore the county’s share to the typical annual receipts of $700,000 to $800,000 for each program. On top of that, SRS provides smaller amounts for forest restoration projects.
In 2017, without an authorization for SRS, Washington lost $15 million in SRS, getting just $2.3 million for the whole state. The omnibus spending act restores the bulk of these funds, with an additional $14 million this year and $13 million for next year, according to Watt. The act reauthorizes SRS for two years.
In addition, Okanogan County gets money from PILT, which has fewer restrictions. In recent years, the county has received between $2.2 million and $2.4 million annually through the PILT program, said Mc Cormack. The act funds PILT for one year. These monies are so important to counties like Okanogan that last year Cantwell used Okanogan County’s 1.6 million acres of federal lands — as opposed to the 14 acres in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin district — as an example to get her colleagues to understand the importance of the funding.
The omnibus spending act replaces the continuing resolution passed by Congress in February to keep the government open, which Cantwell criticized for its failure to address fire-borrowing.