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Wildfire Disaster Funding Passed in March Omnibus!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Sharon Leach
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March 24, 2018

Wildfire Borrowing Solution Part of Compromise on Spending

A bipartisan compromise to boost funding for wildfire suppression passed as part of March's Omnibus bill. U.S. Forest Service and Interior agency costs will be addressed for years to come. The new formula also creates a contingency account with authorizations starting at $2.25 billion in fiscal 2020 as supplemental money for fighting fires.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 maintains budget levels for Interior Department agencies and ups spending authorizations for some agencies, rather than following the Trump administration request for some steep cuts. Agency budgets mostly will go up, not down.
 
Fire Borrowing

In recent years, funding to fight wildfires has continuously fallen short, causing borrowing of money from other Forest Service and Interior accounts, leading to reduction in other services, less attention to fire prevention and thinning, and other detriments to the public lands management activities. The wildfire funding deal was reached through bicameral negotiations among leaders of both parties.

Commercial forestry interests, environmental activists, and lawmakers from Western states had been pushing at least since 2014 for a wildfire funding fix, while fire seasons have gotten longer and suppression costs have climbed. National Forest Homeowners has supported the effort to find a funding fix.

In the omnibus, the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 will be amended to allow for budget adjustments with a schedule of progressively higher caps for disaster relief funds for fighting wildfires starting in fiscal 2020. Those funds only will be available if annual discretionary appropriations, set to equal the fiscal 2015 level, prove inadequate.  Read a summary of how the caps work.

The funding deal was advocated from opposing positions on the political spectrum, such as Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). These states and others suffered a severe 2017 fire season and some of the highest acreage affected by wildfire for several years running.

Authorizations for supplemental funds will not be a blank check, said Cecilia Clavet, senior policy adviser for forest restoration and fire policy at the Nature Conservancy. Congress still will have to appropriate the money year by year, she said.
 
Forest Management

 
The bill lessens some regulatory work and reduces litigation of forest management activities, often contested because of opposition to particular aspects of logging projects. However, fire prevention and resilience projects 3,000 acres or under that follow the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2014 may be categorically excluded from longer environmental impact analysis. Fire and fuel breaks could qualify for those categorical exclusions. Also, projects to remove hazardous trees affecting power lines also may quality for exclusions from environmental analyses if part of an approved program.

The forest management provisions included in the bill were moderate ones that could win compromises, Clavet said. Republicans have been advocating more ambitious changes with bigger categorical exclusions from lengthy NEPA analyses, but those did not make the final cut for the omnibus.