Capitol Alert

California’s wildfire risk is rising. Congress missed a chance to help.

Forestry experts have a dire warning for California: the conditions are ripe for more catastrophic fire seasons like the one last fall. And an arcane federal funding arrangement is making it a lot harder for forestry officials to do something about it.

Instead of fixing the problem, however, Congress just punted — again.

Senate leaders announced a two-year budget deal Wednesday afternoon that would lift the federal spending caps instituted under the 2011 Budget Control Act, aka “sequestration.” It is expected to pass in the Senate this week, but could face a fight in the House. Still, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called it a “breakthrough” after months of brinkmanship. It “doesn’t have everything Democrats want, it doesn’t have everything the Republicans want, but it has a great deal of what the American people want,” Schumer said.

The budget deal includes disaster recovery funding for last year’s wildfires that California lawmakers had fought for, as well as for the states and territories hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

But one of the things Democratic leaders didn’t get was a change in the way the federal government funds firefighting.

A bipartisan group of members of Congress from California and other Western states had been pushing a policy fix that would create a new funding stream to fight fires, leaving more money for the U.S. Forest Service to manage forests and prevent fires. Under current law, firefighting is not funded out of the same natural disaster account used to respond to hurricanes or tornadoes. And the rising costs of fighting fires has led the Forest Service to regularly raid its $600 million budget for forest management.

In recent years, “we’ve taken the overwhelming majority of that (forest management funding), we’ve used it for putting fires out,” lamented Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, whose district includes Merced and Fresno. “So we’re not doing any forest management” — things like clearing brush and thinning forests that can reduce the scale of future fires.

That’s particularly critical in California right now, given the record number of dead trees — 129 million as of December — choking the Sierra Nevada forests. According to California’s Tree Mortality Tax Force, established by Gov. Brown in 2014, “California has been facing the worst epidemic of tree mortality in modern history.”

California lawmakers had hoped the national attention the state’s fires drew in 2017 would force Washington to act. Democrats included the fire fix among their list of demands in the budget negotiations, along with things like equal budget increases for military and domestic programs and a long-term extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“We need to make sure that we straighten out things in the West so the Forest Service isn’t robbed of funding they need to prevent future forest fires as they take the money for present forest fires. We have to do that,” Schumer said in January as he ticked off Democrats’ priorities in the talks.

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris also made clear in letters and public statements with Senate leaders that the issue would factor into their decision on whether to support spending bills needed to keep the government open.

Partisan and regional disagreements appear to have upended the efforts to cut a deal.

In exchange for creating a separate budget — and providing more money — to fight wildfires, Republicans want extensive changes to the laws on forest management, making it easier to circumvent things like the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws. Democrats agreed to a handful of forest management compromises during the Senate negotiations, but it was not enough for the GOP, aides said.

Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley Center for Forestry said political leaders should be able to find common ground that both respects the environment and reduces fire risk. The status quo for California’s forests is unsustainable, said Stephens, who was the lead author of the BioScience article on tree mortality. Protecting the animals that live there won’t do them much good if their habitats disappear, he explained.

At the same time, it’s impossible to manage and rehabilitate the forests if the Forest Service’s resources are consistently drained by emergency firefighting needs, he said. “Can we see really positive management of those lands?” Stephens asked. “Unless you change the funding strategy, you don’t have the chance.”

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei

Correction: This story has been updated to correct references to the Forest Service.

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