WASHINGTON (CN) – Battling wildfires is sapping the U.S. Forest Service of 50 percent of its funding and threatening its ability to fight wildfires in the future, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works heard Wednesday.
The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior must pay for wildfire response out of their own budgets. Dylan Kruse, policy director at the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest, warned senators that “reactive, not proactive” wildfire response will devour 67 percent of the budget in 2021 unless Congress takes action.
The committee this week, led by Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Orin Hatch of Utah, proposed the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017 to address the devastation burning up the West Coast.
They touted the bill as a way to alleviate environmental and land management regulations which they say slow the response to wildfires. The bill could also increase departmental collaboration for resources to combat fires.
Specifically, it reverses an Obama-era policy under which federal agencies are not required to collaborate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for critical habitat or species designations.
Support for the bill was largely split on party lines during the Wednesday hearing. Also split was the testimony from Kruse and two other panelists, Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser and Miles Moretti, CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation.
Moretti called “cumbersome” the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act at some wildfire-prone sites.
“The agencies no longer have the budget and manpower to deal with NEPA on these projects,” Moretti said. “We’re doing maintenance; we’re trying to reduce [invasive plant species.]”
But protection for trees such as the pinyon juniper complicate operation on fire-prone acreage, he said.
Kruse said the problem is not lack of tools but lack of full implementation, which can come only with funding for it.
Kruse suggested an alternative to Barrasso and Hatch’s bill, the bipartisan Wildland Fires Act of 2017, which includes funding to at-risk communities and offers incentives for restoration.
Sen. Ed Merkley, D-Ore., one of the Wildland Fires Act authors, said that without that funding, all other Forest Service are at risk of being drained.
Even timber companies benefit from a well-funded Forest Service program, he said. When they are given access to federally supported programs, such as sawmill logs harvested in dead tree removals, it stops “timber wars” from starting.