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Wildfire Spending: House to probe administration's plan for reform

Wednesday, February 24, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Sharon Leach
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House to probe administration's wildfire spending reform

Scott Streater, E&E reporter

Published: Monday, February 22, 2016

The long-standing debate over funding the growing cost of battling wildfires across the West will likely take center stage this week as a House Appropriations panel holds its first hearing on the Forest Service's proposed $4.9 billion fiscal 2017 budget.

The president's request calls for a new "off budget" $864 million fire suppression cap adjustment that would kick in once the government exhausts discretionary money.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell will likely make wildfire cost reform a centerpiece of his testimony during Wednesday's hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Interior Department and environmental issues.

The Forest Service says fire suppression accounts for a record 52 percent of its annual budget, compared with 16 percent in 1995. The agency has never spent so much on fire in its 110-year history.

The agency routinely blows through budgeted amounts for wildfire suppression and has dipped into money intended for other programs in seven of the last 14 years -- a practice called "fire borrowing."

"Dollars taken from nonfire programs for fire suppression interrupt projects and activities that pre-emptively reduce the risk of catastrophic fires, restore forest health, protect communities, and deliver a multitude of other values," the agency said in its budget request.

The Forest Service hopes the $864 million fire suppression cap adjustment would, if needed, eliminate fire borrowing.

Tidwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have called on Congress to adopt legislation called the "Wildfire Disaster Funding Act" to allow USDA and the Interior Department to use disaster funding outside the agencies' discretionary budgets to fight wildfires each year.

Vilsack and other supporters of the idea fought unsuccessfully to have the legislation, or elements of it, included in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending package (E&E Daily, Dec. 16, 2015). Instead, the escalating costs of wildfire suppression continue to be a major concern for the Forest Service.

Last year's devastating wildfire season, in which a record-setting 10.1 million acres burned nationwide, highlighted the problem, according to USDA, which described 2015 as the most expensive wildfire season in its history (Greenwire, Jan. 7).

The 10 million acres burned last year underscores how wildfires are becoming larger, more intense and more expensive to extinguish, particularly in the West, where drought conditions and overgrown forests have helped greatly expand the wildfire season, agency leaders say.

The problem was so bad during the peak of the wildfire season last August that the Forest Service said it spent $243 million on wildfire suppression during a single week.

The Forest Service in its budget request referred to "uncharacteristically severe wildfires" as a major threat to the nation's "ability to protect its forest and grassland resources."

Along those lines, the administration's budget blueprint requested $384 million for hazardous fuels treatments, $9.1 million above enacted levels.

Other items in the Forest Service's request that are likely to come up during this week's discussion include a proposal to boost acquisitions under the Land and Water Conservation Fund -- to $128 million from $63 million in current funding.

The budget also asked Congress to raise the authorized funding level for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program from $40 million to $80 million annually.

However, the administration only requested that lawmakers set aside $40 million for the program in 2017, a $20 million drop from last year's request and level with current funding.

Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 9:30 a.m. in B-308 Rayburn.

Witnesses: Tom Tidwell, Forest Service chief; and Tony Dixon, Forest Service budget director.