Politics & Government

Wildfire funding getting a fix and environmental groups aren’t totally pleased

A man rides a bicycle down a road damaged from storms in Montecito, Calif. in January.
A man rides a bicycle down a road damaged from storms in Montecito, Calif. in January. AP

Firefighters could be fighting fewer wildfires, thanks to the Congress’ new budget plan.

Efforts to prevent wildfires badly needed more funding, and the Forest Service got that money in the compromise that passed the House Thursday. The Senate is expected to vote Friday.

The changes, which come after five years of bickering among Capitol Hill lawmakers, follows the most expensive year for wildfire fighting in history – costing the U.S. Forest Service almost $3 billion.

Without new strategies, those on the ground said, wildfires would keep causing more desolation, lives and money each year.

Currently, federal agencies have to base their budget for fighting wildfires on a 10-year average of the cost. That’s become outdated as each year fires have burned hotter and longer, causing more devastation.

More than half the Forest Service’s budget every year now goes to fighting fires, and the cost has been climbing every year.

The new plan budgets for $2 billion per year for 10 years, so the Forest Service will no longer have to tap into prevention money to fight active blazes. Because more prevention money will be available, fewer wildfires should erupt.

“Millions of dollars will now be liberated each year for essential wildfire prevention,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has fought along with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, for the budget changes.

The fix comes with some political cost to Democrats. The bill provides fewer environmental safeguards on forest management, which can include the removal of certain trees and debris or dead underbrush.

A provision in the budget allows up to 3,000-acre sections of land to be submitted for forest management without comprehensive environmental analysis before approval, which can currently take years depending on the area.

The deal still includes some environment analysis, but the approval process will be truncated, allowing forest management to occur much faster and with less oversight. That’s a concern for environmental groups, which fear the changes in forest management.

Drew McConville, senior managing director of government relations at the Wilderness Society, said it was “unfortunate” that Republican leadership felt the need to push to “gut important safeguards,” but that he was fine with this compromise, explaining other alternatives were much worse.

“Other proposals would have totally short-circuited judicial review,” McConville said, referring to court processes that could stall or terminate forest management projects. “But while this avoids the worst, it’s still disappointing that Republicans are using wildfire funding to push for unrelated logging interests.”

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said it was logical to tie forest management to wildfire funding. He compared forest managers to doctors treating their patients, not an environmental hazard. They remove more flammable parts of the forest, such as dead trees or dry underbrush, to avoid blazes that would wipe out the entire forest area.

“It’s not clear-cutting, it’s thinning from below, it’s whatever the best forest management process is to make the forest healthier,” Westerman said. “Because we have too many trees per acre, and the trees get weakened, you get a dry spell, a fire gets out, and then it goes up in an inferno, which is what we saw last year in California and all over the West.”

Both sides are claiming victory, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calling the plan a worthy compromise that only got through because Democrats had leverage in budget negotiations.

“It is a compromise, but it’s an advance, especially compared to what they would’ve cooked up before,” Pelosi told McClatchy.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby