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By Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Western senators made their cases this week for how the government should pay for the spiraling cost of wildfires, but sharp divisions remained over how to expedite timber projects that can make forests more resistant to fires and possibly curb future wildfire costs.
Across the Capitol at the same time, House appropriators fought over how best to fund wildfire fighting.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing examined the Forest Service’s $4.8 billion fiscal 2015 budget request, which includes an Obama administration proposal to fight the most extreme wildfires using disaster cap funds separate from the agency’s appropriated budget.
The panel also examined a counter proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that likewise would allow some wildfires to be fought with disaster money, but only if appropriators allocate sufficient funds to reducing hazardous fuels and fighting wildfires from within existing discretionary spending caps.
There was broad agreement among panel members and witnesses that the current model of funding wildfire fighting in a warmer, drier and more populated West is badly broken. The Forest Service has run out of appropriated suppression money eight times in the past decade, forcing it to siphon money from non-fire accounts.
“We would all agree that … we have got to stop the fire borrowing,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee’s ranking member, who has yet to endorse either proposal. “The bigger question then is how do we do this in the most fiscally responsible manner?”
The Obama proposal, which mirrors S. 1875 by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), would have the Forest Service pay for 70 percent of the anticipated cost of fires, as calculated by a 10-year rolling average. Any fires above that would be paid for under the disaster cap that the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses for other natural disasters.
Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.), while not among the bill’s 15 co-sponsors, appeared supportive of the measure, saying that it would ensure fire suppression does not compete with other natural disasters under FEMA’s watch.
“This is a great example of bicameral, bipartisan legislation,” she said, noting the support of more than 200 outside groups including the National Rifle Association and Sierra Club.
Joining in support of S. 1875 were witnesses Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the bill and former top appropriator overseeing the Forest Service, as well as Ken Pimlott of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and Summit County, Colo., Commissioner Dan Gibbs.
But McCain and other Republicans argued Congress should not allow the Forest Service to access disaster money unless adequate resources are committed to culling excess trees from the forest.
“Wildfires deserve some level of budget flexibility. But unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, the federal government can take action to reduce wildfire severity through forest thinning,” McCain said. The Obama proposal “essentially throws billions of dollars at wildfires year after year and fails to address the rising suppression cost.”
McCain said he was “frustrated beyond words” at the pace of thinning on U.S. forests and argued the wood products industry can play a “vital role” in restoring forests to their natural state.
McCain’s S. 2593, co-sponsored by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), would release disaster funding for wildfires only if 100 percent of anticipated suppression needs are funded — based on the “most accurate, peer-reviewed” funding forecast, he said — and additional money equal to half those suppression costs are dedicated to hazardous fuel reductions or landscape-scale forest restoration.
It also contains language from Barrasso’s S. 1966, a bill that mandates 7.5 million acres of timberlands be logged or thinned over the next 15 years under streamlined environmental reviews, provisions that have raised opposition from Democrats and environmentalists.
McCain’s bill drew the backing yesterday of David Tenney, a member of the Navajo County, Ariz., board of supervisors, who echoed concerns that the Obama administration’s proposal does too little to ensure funding to thin forests.
That seems to be the crux for Republicans including Murkowski who have yet to lend support to the Obama wildfire proposal. While Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget also supports a significant hike in hazardous fuels work and timber harvests — made possible, in part, by the shifting of wildfire funding to the emergency account — Republicans appear adamant that any wildfire funding fix contain guaranteed hikes in wildfire prevention.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), an early co-sponsor of the Wyden-Crapo bill, said he likes both proposals and hopes they can somehow be melded together.
But Democrats raised concerns over other provisions within the McCain proposal.
For example, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) warned it places too great an emphasis on traditional timber sales, which are different from the hazardous fuels and stewardship contracting projects that are most common in his state.
But McCain’s camp responded that his bill also requires a 150 percent increase in funding for a variety of hazardous fuels projects, including those in Heinrich’s home state. McCain’s office said Heinrich was focusing solely on the Barrasso language in McCain’s bill to the exclusion of the bill’s hazardous fuels mandates.
Democratic aides also criticized the McCain bill for essentially dictating that appropriators approve steep hikes in suppression and hazardous fuels funding, thus crowding out other programs within the Interior Department, Forest Service and U.S. EPA spending bill.
“This bill would seal the deal that the Forest Service becomes the fire service,” one aide said.
McCain in his testimony acknowledged the bill requires Congress to “make tough choices about which Forest Service programs are spending priorities.”
“Until we responsibly restore our forest ecosystems to their natural state, I see no higher priority for the Forest Service than putting out wildfires and thinning our forests,” he said.
While the Wyden-Crapo bill would open up new discretionary spending room for appropriators to invest in hazardous fuels treatments, McCain’s camp said some Democratic appropriators had already indicated they’d like to spend the savings on land acquisitions and other non-forestry programs.
There’s also disagreement over what impact either bill would have on disaster funding for other natural disasters.
Democrats insist the McCain bill could eventually allow wildfires to compete for funding with other natural disasters like hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, but McCain’s office claimed the opposite is true.
The McCain bill would also forbid the Forest Service from borrowing money from non-fire accounts when suppression funding runs out. Democrats say that could force the agency to stop fighting wildfires altogether if conditions have not been met to access disaster funding.
McCain’s camp said that would not happen.
A separate battle continues to brew on the House side over H.R. 3992, the companion to the Wyden-Crapo bill. Democrats continue to collect signatures on a discharge petition filed last week to force House leaders to hold a vote on the measure.
As of yesterday afternoon, the petition had garnered 103 signatures, though no notable Republicans had yet signed. The petition would need all Democrats and roughly 20 Republicans to sign in order to succeed.
As for this summer, the Obama administration has warned it will again fall short of wildfire cash — this year to the tune of half-a-billion dollars. The White House is asking Congress for $615 million in emergency supplemental funds to cushion the shortfall.
House appropriators are proposing to carve out $470 million from the fiscal 2015 Interior, Forest Service and EPA spending bill to cover the fiscal 2014 wildfire shortfall, which would have the effect of crowding out other agency programs.
Yesterday, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) offered an amendment to the 2015 bill to approve Obama’s $615 million “emergency” supplemental request — money that would not count against the discretionary spending allowance for Interior, Forest Service and EPA — and to reallocate the $470 million to bolster EPA’s clean drinking water programs.
The amendment failed 21-27. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), sponsor of H.R. 3922, opposed it, saying it was the wrong way to solve the nation’s wildfire budget crisis.