Wildfire Funding

As a lifelong Idahoan, I have seen the impact of catastrophic wildfires first hand, and as a member of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, providing adequate resources for wildfire suppression is a top priority for me.  Even in the current difficult budget environment we are in and while cutting a number of other accounts, I ensured that the House Interior Appropriations bill for FY14 fully funded wildfire suppression at the 10-year average and also funded the FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Account.  The bill also includes funding for the Forest Service to acquire two new next generation heavy air tankers to replace its aging and increasingly obsolete fleet.

While I strongly believe that we have a responsibility to fund wildfire suppression, I am deeply concerned about the impact that the wildfire budget has on the ability of the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to manage healthy forests.  One key tool for reducing catastrophic wildfires is the removal of hazardous fuels, which cause fires to burn hotter and spread more quickly.  Unfortunately, when fire costs exceed the agency’s fire budget, the agency is forced to borrow from other accounts, like hazardous fuels reduction and grazing management, to pay for fire suppression.  With fewer resources available for good forest management, fires get worse, and so wildfire suppression costs are eating up most of the agency’s budget.  For example, in the mid-1980’s, 70% of the Forest Service’s budget was dedicated to actually managing the national forests.  Today, that number is a dismal 30%.

As a member of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee , I have worked to ensure not only that fire suppression is adequately funded, but that the management accounts are reimbursed when fire borrowing occurs.  You may be interested to know that the FY14 House Interior and Environment Appropriations bill provides $600 million for the Forest Service in fire suppression funding in an effort to address fire-borrowing before it happens.  In addition, recognizing the value and cost effectiveness of preventing wildfires versus fighting them, my bill also increases funding for hazardous fuels removal by $200 million for the Forest Service and $87 million for the Department of the Interior.

I’ve seen where proactively removing hazardous fuels from an area has made the difference between relatively minor damage to resources and property and complete destruction, so I simply cannot understand why these fire prevention accounts were drastically underfunded in the president’s budget request.  Failing to adequately fund the hazardous fuels account would virtually guarantee that the cost of wildfire suppression will continue to rise in the future.  This bill will help us to get ahead of the problem as much as possible.

As we go forward, we need to find a way to restore our forests to a more healthy and natural state. In order to do that, we must develop a plan that includes managed prescribed burns, hazardous fuels reductions, and timber harvest where appropriate. We must give our forest managers the tools and the authority to properly manage our federal lands.  The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is very appropriate. Over time, fuels reduction programs will pay significant dividends in the reduction of fire fighting and restoration costs.