After touring the devastation of the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. on Saturday, President Donald Trump announced that the federal government would provide an additional $500 million in funding to the 2018 farm bill for forest management to help mitigate future fires.
Back in Washington, however, no one seems to know what he’s talking about.
“$500 million. That will be in the farm bill. We just put it in,” Trump told reporters at the Incident Command Post for the Camp Fire in Chico, Calif on Nov. 17. “We have a new category, and that’s management and maintenance of the forests. It’s very important.”
The president repeated the figure during a stop in Malibu, Calif, where the Woolsey Fire has burned roughly 100,000 acres, later the same day.
“So we’re putting in the farm bill, $500 million,” Trump said, according to a White House transcript.
“I’m not sure where he got that from,” said one congressional aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record, echoing the sentiment of a number of colleagues on Capitol Hill.
The reality is that there is no such funding provision in the 2018 Farm Bill, which authorizes federal agriculture and land management programs but does not appropriate funds. That requires separate spending legislation, a congressional source familiar with the Farm Bill confirmed.
And Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue confirmed to reporters in a conference call on Tuesday that his agency, which oversees the National Forest Service, was not requesting additional funds in the fiscal 2019 spending bill. Congress is working to pass that spending legislation by Dec. 7, when current funding runs out.
Instead, Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are pressing for new authorizations in the Farm Bill that would allow the government to circumvent environmental restrictions when conducting forest management work like dead tree removal, controlled burns and thinning the forests.
“Interior would love for the Senate in the Farm Bill to add language to give the secretaries more authority,” Zinke said on the call.
The debate is not a new one. The versions of the Farm Bill that the Senate and House passed earlier this year both include forestry sections, contrary to the president’s suggestion that forest management had just recently been added to the legislation.
Zinke and Perdue have been campaigning for months for Congress to adopt the House version of the bill, which would roll back environmental review requirements on forest-thinning projects they argue will help reduce the risk of wildfires, including the ones ravaging California.
The Senate is resisting most of the controversial House provisions, which are vehemently opposed by environmental groups and questioned by many forestry experts.
Members of Congress are still wrestling with how to reconcile differences between the forestry provisions in the two bills, among other disagreements.
The White House declined to address specific questions about the $500 million in funding the president promised over the weekend.
In a statement, White House spokesman Judd Deere said, “The administration continues to work very closely with both chambers of Congress to include strong forest management improvements in the Farm Bill negotiations.”
Congress budgeted $566 million in fiscal year 2018 for what is known as “hazardous fuels reduction”— removing dead trees, brush and overgrown vegetation that can become tinder for wildfires. That was $63 million more than the Trump administration requested for those programs in the Agriculture and Interior budgets last year. For the fiscal year 2019 budget, submitted in February, the administration requested $540 million to address hazardous fuels.
The president seemed to suggest in California that he was prepared to provide new funding, in addition to what the White House and Congress have already been negotiating over the past nine months.
In the coming weeks, Congress will determine how much money the fuel reduction programs actually receive.
Thanks to drought, insect infestation and maintenance backlogs, those “fuels” are now choking much of California’s forests. It’s one factor behind the terrifying scale and destructiveness of the state’s recent blazes. More than 80 people have died in the Camp and Woolsey Fires, which ignited last week.
Trump toured the sites of both fires on Saturday — just his second trip to California during his presidency — and promised that the federal government would help the state with the funding needed to recover and prevent future catastrophic fires.
“We’re going to spend the money that (is) necessary,” he told reporters in Malibu. “It is a great, great people that live here and it’s unfair to put them through this so often.”
It was a dramatic shift in tone from his initial reaction, via Twitter, a week prior.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump tweeted. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
Later that day, the president was more conciliatory, tweeting, “Our hearts are with those fighting the fires.” On Nov. 12, the White House approved a major disaster declaration for the communities affected by the recent California wildfires, ensuring they receive federal aid for recovery and rebuilding efforts.
In an interview on ABC’s Face the Nation on Sunday, California Gov. Jerry Brown said that Trump “pledged very specifically to continue to help us, that he’s got our back, and I thought that was a very positive thing.”
“We need the money, we need federal help and we need a collaborative and cooperative experience, and we’re getting that,” Brown said.
Bryan Lowry and Anita Kumar contributed to this story.