Reporter Memo: Draft legislation misses the mark for wildfire response and management

Jun 23, 2016
Fire season is upon us and due to prolonged drought conditions, climate change, and unnatural fuel buildup - a result of putting out wildfires before they have run their course – wildfires are increasingly common.

The severity of this problem is magnified by drastic underfunding; forcing the U.S. Forest Service to drain funds from essential programs such as fuel reduction, recreation and stewardship towards emergency fire suppression.

2015 was a record breaking fire season, burning more than 10 million acres across the nation and costing taxpayers more than $2 billion.

A recent report released by the U.S. Forest Service predicts that these costs will only continue to rise and that in just 10 years, two out of every three dollars of the Forest Service’s annual budget granted by Congress will be spent on fire programs. 

Unfortunately, recent draft legislation currently circulating in the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) will do little to help this situation. In May, Committee members released the "Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act of 2016," a discussion draft bill meant to address forest management, wildfire, and funding. 

In a letter from 28 local, regional and national conservation organizations to the Senate ENR Committee yesterday, signers point out how this proposal undermines existing environmental laws and fails to fix the fire funding problem faced by the U.S. Forest Service.

Not only does this draft bill fail to solve the fire funding problem, it is also loaded with concerning provisions that:

·        Carve huge loopholes in bedrock environmental law, including the National Environmental Policy Act, by limiting environmental review of certain fuel reduction and forestry projects.  

·        Limit opportunities for public input into management of our shared public lands.  

·        Alter judicial review of certain forestry projects limiting the ability to challenge projects that negatively affect community water supplies, wildlife and recreation opportunities.  

Continue old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest and delay indefinitely a transition to a more sustainable economy. 

Emergency firefighting will continue to rob funds from essential programs.

The growth of fire costs is crippling the Forest Service’s ability to conserve the nation's forests and grasslands and to provide the multiple uses and values for which the agency was created. The U.S. Forest Service now spends 52% of its annual budget on firefighting, and if left unchecked the share of the budget devoted to emergency wildfires could exceed 67 percent by 2025.  

·        Title I of this draft legislation amends the Budget Control Act. This will authorize funding for costs that exceed the average costs for wildfire suppression operations over the previous ten years.  

·        Providing emergency spending authority for firefighting costs instead of changing the way we pay for wildfires simply ensures that firefighting will continue to consume an ever-expanding portion of the Forest Service budget, thus robbing funds from essential programs like recreation, fuel risk reduction, and stewardship.  

Altering the review process of certain forestry projects shortchanges restoration and science-based decision making that are the foundations of healthy forests.

·        Subtitle A – Environmental Analysis for Certain Forest Management Activities provides a new exemption to the National Environmental Policy Act. This would authorize the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to analyze only an action and no action alternative for specified forest management projects. Currently, the National Environmental Policy Act generally requires that an agency consider a range of alternatives for any proposed action.  

·        Subtitle D – Accelerated Restoration Program for Ponderosa Pine and Dry-Site Mixed Conifer Forests establishes a ‘pilot program’ to expedite fuel reduction in ponderosa pine forests. This authorizes the Forest Service and BLM to carry out fuel reduction projects without complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This subtitle will create a new, undefined standard of "substantial deference," thus altering the judicial review of forest projects and limiting opportunities for the oversight of forest projects. Subtitle D also authorizes 20-year timber sale contracts, placing tens of millions of acres of forest at risk. 

Putting Tongass National Forest old-growth at risk.

·        Subtitle B creates amendments to the Tongass National Forest Plan, putting certain old-growth forests at risk by redirecting funding from an ongoing effort to transition the economy of the Tongass National Forest away from old-growth logging.  In effect, this will indefinitely delay a critically needed transition to a more sustainable forestry program focused on young-growth stands and forest restoration.  

Unfortunately, the discussion draft fails to fix the fire funding problem and threatens cherished national forest lands and bedrock environmental laws in the process. 

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FOR MORE INFORMATION: To speak with The Wilderness Society’s forest policy experts, please contact Kate Mackay, Director – Wildlands Communications, (602) 571-2603.