Jan. 09–Legislation introduced in Washington this week would cover the cost of increasingly larger and more expensive forest fires across the U.S.
The bill would see the federal government pay for expensive fire seasons out of disaster funds and not out of the primary budget of the U.S. Forest Service, which has been stifled in recent years by so many expensive fires.
In 1991, forest fires accounted for about 13 percent of the Forest Service budget. Since then, warmer weather and more frequent droughts have drastically increased the size and frequency of fires, and the cost to fight them has risen about 22 percent annually.
The average number of fires on federal land has more than doubled since 1980, and the total area burned annually has tripled. By 2012, forest fires were eating up 47 percent of the Forest Service budget.
The result has been less money for the Forest Service to spend on forest management and recreation across the national forest system, including the Superior and Chippewa national forests in northern Minnesota and the Chequamegon-Nicolet forest in Wisconsin.
Other areas hit include programs that support tourism, including maintenance and capital improvements on thousands of recreation, research and administrative sites — cut by two-thirds since 2001. Support for recreation, heritage and wilderness activities has been cut by 13 percent. Wildlife and fisheries habitat management has been reduced by 17 percent on national forests, agency officials said in a report released in August.
The new legislation, called the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, has apparent bipartisan support in the 1114th Congress, although its success is unclear amid the turmoil in Washington budget politics.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., would allow the Forest Service to use federal disaster money to pay for catastrophic fire costs, funding wildfire suppression as the government does for hurricanes, tornadoes and flash floods.
Several conservation, hunting and fishing groups have hailed the legislation, which stalled in Congress in 2014.
Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said the new forest fire disaster fund would allow the Forest Service “to resume forest management activities like access enhancement, habitat restoration and wildfire prevention instead of focusing its efforts to putting out wildfires. With strong bipartisan support, this is must-pass legislation for the 114th Congress.”