The House on Wednesday approved a bill to reshape the way the federal government responds to wildfires, despite pushback on the effort by the Trump administration.
The Agriculture Department and its component Forest Service have for years decried the funding process for fighting the fires, noting the increasingly large portion of the budget those efforts consume. Fire containment now makes up 57 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, compared to just 16 percent in fiscal 1995. The 2017 Resilient Federal Forests Act (H.R. 2936) would create a new procedure by which USDA or the Interior Department could request a “major disaster” after a wildfire, which the president could then approve.
This would aim to put an end to the process known as “fire borrowing,” through which firefighting efforts take funds reserved for other functions such as fire prevention and forest management. The measure would prohibit the transfer of funds between fire suppression accounts. The Obama administration also proposed funding federal firefighting efforts like other natural disasters that draw from an emergency reserve fund. Such changes never took hold, however.
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The White House said it appreciated some aspects of the bill, but it objected to the proposal to reshaping the Stafford Act—a 1988 law that governs emergency disaster spending—to include wildfire suppression. “The problem of ‘fire borrowing,’ ” the Office of Management and Budget said in a Statement of Administration Policy, should be dealt with in a “comprehensive manner, rather than through a funding only approach.”
The House bill would “force competition for funding between wildfires on federal land and other disasters already covered by the Stafford Act, including hurricanes,” OMB said. It acknowledged the current system “impedes the mission of our land management agencies,” but said lawmakers should instead focus on creating an annual cap adjustment for wildfire suppression operations.
“As we have seen in this year’s historic Atlantic hurricane season,” OMB said, “the Federal Emergency Management Agency must continue to be focused on its existing mission, and the Stafford Act’s Disaster Relief Fund must remain dedicated solely to that mission.”
All but 10 Democrats opposed the legislation, despite previously working to reform the firefighting funding system. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said the new emergency declaration procedure would be too cumbersome to keep up with the pace at which new fires develop.
“During a busy fire season, when many fires can burn simultaneously, federal agencies will have to cease operations while the White House processes paperwork,” Grijalva said. “A real budget fix would ensure that funds are available in advance of an emergency, not on an ad hoc case-by-case basis.”
He added the funds would be too difficult to access, as the measure would only enable USDA and Interior to dip into them once Congress appropriated and the departments exceeded the 10-year average appropriation on suppression. Grijalva instead supports the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, sponsored by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, which would make disaster funding available when firefighting agencies spend 70 percent of their rolling 10-year averages.
Andy Stahl, executive director at Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said the agency’s problems are rooted in spending priorities, not inadequate funding.
“What this bill would have done is given the Forest Service another blank check,” Stahl said. The fact of the matter is it doesn’t matter how much the Forest Service spends fighting fires, it cannot win this war.”
Instead of boosting post-hoc suppression efforts, Stahl suggested the agency shift its funding to prevention efforts. If the government had spent “an ounce” of money in prevention in the areas of northern California recently devastated by forest fires, he said, thousands of homes could have been saved.
“Once the fire is burning literally out of control, it is by definition out of control,” said Stahl, a former firefighter at the Forest Service. “And you cannot stop it.”
Both Stahl’s group and House Democrats opposed several other provisions in the resilient fires bill, including an effort to make broad exclusions to environmental laws agencies must follow in the wake of a wildfire. Grijalva said the bill would undermine the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. The White House called those provisions “important steps forward.”
The bill will now move to the Senate, where Democrats expressed confidence it will be defeated.