Opinion: Fire funding overhaul a major victory for forest communities

By U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich
Posted 4/18/18

Many of us in New Mexico are fortunate to have a national forest right outside our backyard.

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Opinion: Fire funding overhaul a major victory for forest communities

Posted

Many of us in New Mexico are fortunate to have a national forest right outside our backyard.

We rely on these forests to provide drinking water and firewood, to fill our freezers and to support our outdoor recreation economy. However, as temperatures heat up and we enter fire season after a particularly dry winter, we are also acutely aware that some of our forests are still recovering from historic wildfires and that all of them face imminent threats of destructive fires.

We know the weight of the loss these disasters carry.

That's why I am so pleased that Congress has finally passed a solution to a long-running problem in the way the U.S. Forest Service funds fighting wildfires. Until we passed this new law, wildfires in the West were not treated the same way in the federal budget as other natural disasters, such as tornados in the Great Plains, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, and floods in the Midwest. That meant every time the costs of fighting fires exceeded the Forest Service's regular fire budget, the difference had to be made up by transferring funds from other forest thinning and restoration programs, a practice known as "fire borrowing."

I worked for years with Sens. Tom Udall D-N.M., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho on legislation to allow our federal agencies to draw from disaster and emergency funds during unusually large fire seasons rather than borrow money from their forest restoration programs that help us get out ahead of what causes large blazes. Last month, we successfully passed this long overdue wildfire funding fix.

Thanks to this new common-sense policy, suppression efforts for the most catastrophic wildfires will be funded in the same way that we already pay for other natural disaster relief work. We will no longer have to choose between fighting fires and preventing them. We can and must do both. Stewardship contracts, watershed restoration projects and other critical forest health and thinning programs will finally have the funding certainty they need to guarantee long-term success.

As the ranking member of the Joint Economic Committee, I am focused on finding solutions for New Mexico's rural communities. Whether it is wildfire funding, improving access to high-speed internet in underserved areas, investing in water infrastructure projects, protecting our treasured public lands or supporting small business development grants, I am committed to helping rural New Mexicans thrive.

I'm pleased to report that as part of the same bill that included the wildfire funding fix, Congress also fully funded the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program and reinstated the Secure Rural Schools program. Both of these vital programs ensure New Mexico's rural counties that have large swaths of nontaxable federal public lands, such as national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands and National Park Service lands can pay for police and fire protection, emergency response, schools, road maintenance, and other crucial services.

This fire season, we can all play a part in protecting the places we love from catastrophic fires. I encourage you to look at the Wildfire Preparedness & Prevention Resource Center on my website, Heinrich.Senate.Gov. It includes prevention tips, best practices to protect homes and businesses, and an interactive map of active wildfire information from around the state.

I also invite you to share your comments, suggestions and questions with me. Please visit my website or call my Santa Fe office at (505) 988-6647 if I can be of assistance to you or your family.

It is an honor and privilege to serve you in the U.S. Senate.

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