Viewpoints: National Park Service should have separate account to fight wildfires

This summer’s El Portal fire threatened Yosemite National Park, destroyed homes and wildlife habitat, and endangered historic buildings and local economies. With the 4,500-plus-acre wildfire now fully contained, Americans are left with a price tag exceeding $10 million.

Wildfires like this one are emergencies that put us at the mercy of Mother Nature, the same as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. It’s time to take a critical step toward financing wildfire response in the same manner as other disasters. It’s time for Congress to pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

Like many Americans, I am a homeowner. I have insurance, so if a fire damages my house, I don’t have to rob my grocery budget to repair the damage. Our national parks are not so fortunate. While an emergency account addresses tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters, wildfires are not covered.

Instead, the outdated funding system relies on the Interior Department and Forest Service to project firefighting budgets on the average of what was spent over the last decade. However, anyone who remembers last year’s Rim fire – which affected Yosemite and surrounding communities and cost more than $127 million to fight – can understand that with the increase in the number and severity of wildfires, coupled with severe drought conditions, averages from previous years do not cover current needs.

When funding runs out after such expensive disasters, our National Park Service and other federal land agencies have to borrow from their own proverbial grocery budgets to cover the costs. At our national parks, which are already significantly underfunded, that can mean delays for critical upkeep and repair projects, adding to a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion. This puts our historic landmarks, visitor centers, campgrounds and well-traveled park roadways at risk, and will cost taxpayers more in the long run.

Since there is no dependable mechanism for paying for even the most catastrophic fires, by the time the next year’s budget cycle begins, our national parks start day one with a deficit – at the expense of much-needed park services, including rangers and educational programs.

When it reconvenes this month, Congress has an unmatched opportunity to address this growing problem through the widely supported, bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. Unfortunately, as with many other important pieces of legislation surrounding the future of our national parks and public lands, our congressional leaders are stalled.

If Congress fails to act, it will be yet another example of how its inaction has shortchanged parks and the American people. The inability to compromise over the last four years has led to a 13 percent cut, when adjusted for inflation, to National Park Service budgets.

Last year, despite a 16-day government shutdown that cost local communities $500 million and months of damaging across-the-board “sequester” cuts, our 401 national parks welcomed more than 273 million visitors who spent $14.6 billion in nearby communities and supported nearly 240,000 jobs. Our national parks provide a $10 economic return for every one dollar invested. Investing in them is one of the smartest decisions our congressional leaders can make.

This year, we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant Act, which originally protected the park’s beloved Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley. As we look to the park’s next 150 years, as well as the upcoming 100th anniversary of our National Park System in 2016, it is essential that Congress ensures that funds are available to invest in our national parks, which protect our heritage and welcome American and international visitors.

We appreciate the support shown for the wildfire bill by 149 Senate and House co-sponsors, including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Reps. Ken Calvert, Jim Costa, John Garamendi, Tom McClintock, Devin Nunes, Adam Schiff and Mike Thompson.

We ask other members of Congress from California and throughout the country to support the bill and move it forward this year.