Congress OKs funding fix for costlier wildfires

By Cody Hooks
Posted 3/29/18

The wildfires funding provisions will take effect in 2020 and ends a practice known as "fire borrowing," budgeting lingo for raiding funds set aside for forest conservation, wildfire prevention and recreation programs to pay for the immediate costs of suppressing wildfires.

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Congress OKs funding fix for costlier wildfires


By passing a massive, $1.3 trillion spending bill last week, congressional lawmakers also approved an eight-year fix to federal funding that is intended to provide some much-needed predictability as wildfires and cost of fighting them grow larger year after year.

The wildfires funding provisions will take effect in 2020 and ends a practice known as "fire borrowing," budgeting lingo for raiding funds set aside for forest conservation, wildfire prevention and recreation programs to pay for the immediate costs of suppressing wildfires.

The omnibus spending bill was passed by both houses of Congress shortly after midnight March 23 and signed by the president later that day.

Fire borrowing has long been a major concern of people watching federal budgets, regardless of political party.

"We end up having to hoard all the money that is intended for fire prevention because we're afraid we're going to need it to actually fight fires," said USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, a Republican and former governor of Georgia, in 2017. "It means we can't do the prescribed burning, harvesting or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on."

Perdue repeated his sentiments about funding wildfires again last week after President Donald Trump signed the spending bill.

"This is an urgently needed solution for New Mexico and other Southwestern states as they begin yet another fire season and another year of drought," said U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico's senior senator and a Democrat.

"Wildfires are as devastating to communities in the West as hurricanes are in the East. They should be treated like the natural disaster they are -- without shortchanging communities by taking funds from other important programs at the Forest Service or Interior Department," which includes the Bureau of Land Management, Udall said.

Although budgets for land management agencies, namely the Forest Service and Interior, have remained relatively flat, the yearly costs of fires have not.

At the pinnacle of last year's fire season in the West, when complex fires spanned millions of acres and demanded resources from all levels of government, more than 27,000 people were supporting those efforts. It's a lot of personnel and when all is said and done, a lot of money. By September, it was clear 2017 was the USDA's most expensive year for suppressing wildfires, exceeding $2 billion, according to the agency.

Yearly costs of suppressing wildfires add up to at least $4.7 billion, with state and local governments footing about $1.2 billion and $1 billion, respectively, according to a 2014 report by the Nature Conservancy. The Carson National Forest, a part of the USDA, spent $4.9 million on wildfire suppression in 2017.

And even the Forest Service expects the number of severe fires -- think of the 2011 Las Conchas fire near Los Alamos -- to double by 2050.

For decades, fire suppression efforts were funded using a rolling 10-year average of federal appropriations, yet that average kept growing as did wildfires. Each year, wildfires would eat up a bigger percentage of federal funds.

In the coming fiscal year, the spending bill allocates $1.946 billion for wildfire suppression, which according to Udall's office is about $500 million more than the 10-year average.

Annual spending for wildland firefighting ramps up from $2.25 billion in 2020 and to $2.95 billion in 2027.

The bill also raises the cap on funds available for natural disasters by $4.59 billion, bringing the anticipated total disaster funds for fiscal year 2019 to about $11.9 billion.

The spending bill combines a dozen appropriation bills that federal lawmakers must routinely approve. If they don't, the federal government shuts down, as happened earlier this year for three days.

Both Udall and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich voted in favor of the spending bill while all three congresspeople from New Mexico voted against the measure.

"We need to be more proactive in forest management to revitalize our nation's forests and preserve their ecosystems," Rep. Steve Pearce, the state's sole Republican representative and his party's leading figure for the 2018 gubernatorial race, told The Taos News through his spokesperson. "We cannot continue to increase funding without putting proper reforms in place."

During budget negotiations earlier this year, a key demand from Democrats was permanent protection for about 800,000 "dreamers," people who were brought to the United States without documentation as children. The DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, program was set to expire earlier this month, but a court intervened, putting the program on life-support.

While political wrangling over DACA led to a brief government shutdown in January, provisions for DACA were not part of this spending bill.

"Recent court decisions have temporarily halted the president's plan to end DACA, which is welcome news. But that is only a temporary victory, and Congress needs to find a permanent solution urgently," said Udall. "I'm not going to stop fighting to protect the future of DREAMers."

A spokesperson for Rep. Ben Ray Luján told The Taos News the congressman for Northern New Mexico has cosponsored three dreamer-related pieces of legislation and, along with fellow Democrats, have requested a floor vote on those bills 26 times.


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