Monday, March 19, 2018

Wildfire funding fix, left out of last omnibus spending bill, is more urgent for this week's bill as fire season looms

As Congress struggles to reach an agreement on a $1.3 trillion spending bill by Friday, to avoid another government shutdown, "Rural advocates say the time is now to deliver a policy fix that provides adequate funding for fighting wildfires while also supporting forest management activities that limit fire risk," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.
A fix would be none too soon, since the 2018 wildfire season is almost here and every indication is that it could be just as bad as 2017, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. But "a bipartisan deal to pair a fire-borrowing fix with forest-management reforms and a two-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program fell apart and was not included in the final budget agreement negotiated earlier in February," Oates reports. "The next opportunity for lawmakers to weigh in on the wildfire issue is the Fiscal 2018 omnibus package that Congress is expected to pass before March 23."

Some Republicans are trying to barter looser environmental rules for forest management with Democrats in exchange for increased budgets for fighting wildfires. And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has ordered more aggressive timber harvesting practices to decrease wildfire risk.

Last year's wildfire season cost the nation a record $2.4 billion, far surpassing the allotted budget. So the money had to be taken from other parts of the Forest Service and Department of Interior budgets to pay for it, a practice known as "fire borrowing". The problem is, fire borrowing means less money for things that can help keep wildfires from happening, such as brush clearing. 

"With an increase in domestic spending on the table, Congress can take action over the next few weeks to support forest restoration activities that will protect rural communities from wildfires," said Tyson Bertone-Riggs of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.

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