U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue expressed his appreciation for the work of Congress to find a bipartisan fix for the way the U.S. Forest Service is funded for fighting wildfires. Secretary Perdue had advocated for the change since taking office in April 2017. Congress included the solution in the FY 2018 Omnibus Spending Package, which has been signed into law by President Donald J. Trump.
“The fire funding fix, which has been sought for decades, is an important inclusion in the omnibus spending bill and I commend Congress for addressing the issue,” said Secretary Perdue. “Improving the way we fund wildfire suppression will help us better manage our forests. If we ensure that we have adequate resources for forest management, we can mitigate the frequency of wildfires and severity of future fire seasons. I thank Congressional leaders, with whom I’ve frequently discussed this issue.”
The solution included in the omnibus provides a new funding structure from FY2020 through FY2027. Beginning in FY2020, $2.25 billion of new budget authority is available to USDA and the Department of the Interior. The budget authority increases by $100 million each year, ending at $2.95 billion in new budget authority by FY2027. For the duration of the 8-year fix, the fire suppression account will be funded at the FY 2015 President’s Budget request – $1.011 billion. If funding in the cap is used, the Secretary of Agriculture must submit a report to Congress documenting aspects of fire season, such as decision-making and cost drivers, that led to the expenditures. The omnibus includes a 2-year extension of Secure Rural Schools, providing provide rural counties approximately $200 million more per year. It also provides Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act Reauthorization. The legislation also includes seven important forest management reforms, including:
- Categorical Exclusion for Wildfire Resilience Projects
- Healthy Forest Restoration Act inclusion of Fire and Fuel Breaks
- 20-year Stewardship contracts
- Cottonwood Reform
- Fire Hazard Mapping Initiative
- Fuels Management for Protection of Electric Transmission Lines
- Good Neighbor Authority Road Amendment
Until the funding solution was achieved, the fire suppression portion of the USFS budget was funded at a rolling ten-year average of appropriations, while the overall USFS budget remained relatively flat. Because fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the ten-year rolling fire suppression budget average kept rising, consuming a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year. This increase forced the agency to take funds from prevention programs to cover fire suppression costs. In addition, hunting, fishing, and other recreational programs were cut to cover the costs of fire suppression.
Last year, wildland fire suppression costs exceeded $2.5 billion, making it the most expensive year on record. The USFS confronted wildland fires last summer that started in the Southeast and continued through the year in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Intermountain West and Pacific Northwest. At peak season, more than 28,000 personnel were dispatched to fires, along with aircraft and other emergency response resources. Since taking office, Secretary Perdue has worked diligently to address the issue and ensure both fire suppression and prevention efforts receive the proper funding they need.
- September 8, 2017: Secretary Perdue Calls on Congress to Fix Forest Service Fire Funding Problem
- September 14, 2017: Secretary Perdue Renews Call for Congress to Fix “Fire Borrowing” Problem after Wildland Fire Suppression Costs Exceed $2 Billion
- September 26, 2017: Secretary Perdue Hosts U.S. Senators for 2017 Fire Briefing
- November 1, 2017: Secretary Perdue Issues Statement on House Passage of Resilient Federal Forests Act
- In 2017, Secretary Perdue traveled to multiple areas of the country besieged by wildfires to assess damage, and to discuss the fire funding issue at various roundtables:
- Secretary Perdue visited Montana with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke near the end of August 2017, and received an assessment from Forest Service personnel on the ground at the Lolo Peak Fire.
- In October 2017, Secretary Perdue visited the Cherokee National Forest to learn of damage caused by wildfires in 2016 and discuss the fire funding issue at a roundtable with USFS employees.
- Last month, Secretary Perdue discussed the 2017 wildfire season while touring damage from the Creek Fire, that ravaged Los Angeles County last December.