House, Senate panels approve Forest Service, EPA spending bills; NACD responds
The National Association of Conservation Districts is pleased with the Fiscal Year 2017 funding levels the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have approved for the Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the association is disappointed that the committees failed to propose a long-term budget solution for wildfire suppression costs.
“The House and Senate’s proposed budget allocations for the Forest Service’s state and private programs are signs that Congress is headed in the right direction when it comes to properly funding forest management on private lands,” NACD CEO Jeremy Peters said. “Sadly, it is also clear that both chambers have failed to put forth solutions that would effectively end the scourge that is ‘fire borrowing.’”
The House bill – passed on Wednesday – would allocate $244 million for the Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry programs, which is $7 million more than what NACD requested and what was enacted in FY 2016.
For Forest Service wildfire suppression activities, the House committee allotted $933.4 million – that’s $122.4 million above the enacted level for FY 2016 and $59.5 million above President Obama’s request. For the FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Fund, the committee allotted $315 million – $508 million below the FY 2016 enacted level and $315 million above the president’s budget request.
Unfortunately, the House bill does not include a provision to reform the way wildfire suppression is funded, which means the Forest Service and Interior Department agencies would be forced to continue funding fire-fighting operations out of accounts meant for general forest management and restoration.
“The wildfire season increases in severity and duration every year,” NACD President Lee McDaniel said. Today, fire seasons are on average 78 days longer than they were in 1970, and the average number of annual acres burned has doubled since 1980.
“The only way we have a chance at preventing the destruction wildfires leave behind is to properly fund the Forest Service’s forest management, fuels reduction, and restoration programs – and that means ending the practice of ‘fire borrowing’ altogether,” he continued.
The Forest Service and Interior agencies are forced to “fire borrow” from forest management accounts to pay for wildfire suppression on a yearly basis because their fire suppression budgets aren’t enough to cover the actual costs of putting out the flames. In the last two years, for instance, the federal government diverted $237 million away from forest restoration programs. And last year, the Forest Service spent a record 52 percent of its budget fighting fires.
“The Interior and Forest Service’s firefighting budget is based on the 10-year average cost of fighting fires, but because the fires are getting worse every year, that number just won’t cut it,” McDaniel continued. “’Fire borrowing’ is an issue that depletes forestry budgets in every state, so it is of national importance that a solution is found.”
The Senate’s spending bill – passed Thursday – includes a total of $3.78 billion for wildfire suppression – a figure in line with the 10-year average for firefighting costs – in addition to a budget cap adjustment provision that would allow these agencies to tap into disaster assistance funding when fire expenditures top the $3.78 billion allotment.
NACD supports a budget cap adjustment, but has asked that disaster assistance funding be made available for fire suppression activities once 70 percent of the fire-fighting budget has been spent – instead of 100 percent. This way, the land management agencies wouldn’t have to borrow from other accounts during the time it takes to receive congressional approval for additional funds.
The House and Senate committee bills also included provisions that would prohibit the EPA from implementing its Waters of the U.S. rule – commonly referred to as WOTUS or the Clean Water Rule – should the court’s stay on the rule be lifted.
“This is a positive development on a priority issue for NACD,” Peters said. “WOTUS has been a point of contention for our members and we will continue to support fixing the rule with legislation.”
For EPA’s 319 Nonpoint Source Grant program, the House committee proposed a funding level of $164.9 million, which matches last year’s enacted level, the president’s budget proposal, and NACD’s request. The Senate committee’s funding level proposal for the 319 grant program has yet to be released to the public.