SEELEY LAKE — This summer, as raging forest fires swept across the state, homes were evacuated, schools couldn’t open and plumes of smoke engulfed this scenic lake town flanked by twin mountain ranges.
On this late October day, there’s no trace of the disruption in Seeley Lake, no smoke lingering in the air. But just a few miles away, the wildfires have left behind a mosaic of destruction. Some areas of the forest are relatively unburned, but there are swaths that look more like a moonscape — an ashen forest floor and black, dead trees.
Fires raged across the Northwest U.S. this summer — dozens died in Northern California, and billions were spent to fight blazes that residents across the region are becoming accustomed to dealing with, as a changing climate creates longer fire seasons.
But as the need for preventive measures like reducing forest fire fuel on the ground has heightened in Montana, the federal agency responsible for contracting such projects — the U.S. Forest Service — has a budget that has been dominated by the cost of fighting increasingly intense wildfires.
“We’re turning the Forest Service from a forest management agency into a firefighting agency,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said in an interview. “And that’s not working very well. We need to fix it.”
Changing the funding model for fighting wildfires is something most people in Montana agree on — from environmental organizers in Missoula to loggers in Seeley Lake — regardless of whom they voted for in the national election.
“I’m all for separating out the firefighting budget from the Forest Service’s operating budget,” said Tim Clark, a restaurant owner in Seeley Lake, who says he identifies as a political conservative. “That way they can get back to doing thinning like they used to.”
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, co-sponsored in the Senate by Tester and currently pending in Congress, would open up federal funds for natural disasters to cover the cost of fighting wildfires in national forests.
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, is a co-sponsor for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act in the House of Representatives, and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, supported a similar bill in 2015. Neither could be reached for comment on this story, but Gianforte has expressed commitment to securing more federal funding for fighting Montana wildfires.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure Montana receives the aid we need and to enact meaningful forest management reforms to improve the health of our forests and reduce the severity of future wildfires,” Gianforte said in a press release.
But bipartisan support in Montana doesn’t guarantee the bill will pass in Washington. In 2014, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan warned members of his party against backing a similar Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, citing “increased federal spending.” The legislation sat for six months, and the congressional session ended without a vote.
A 2015 Forest Service report states that the average fire season is 78 days longer than in 1970, which results in escalating costs for fighting wildfires. The rising costs have a debilitating impact on the agency’s ability to deliver on its other mandates, such as “recreation, restoration, planning, and other activities of the Forest Service.”
In 1995, the Forest Service spent 15 percent of its budget on fighting wildfires, according to departmental figures. In 2015, that figure stood around 50 percent, and Tester said that while figures for this year have not been made available, he would “not be surprised if it was 60 percent, if it doesn’t blow through that.”
Montanans doing the work on the ground to prepare for longer fire seasons are unequivocal that the funding structure for fighting the blazes needs to change.
“Unlike any other natural disaster, we treat fire by borrowing from everything else that this federal agency is supposed to be doing — really, stealing it,” said Zack Porter, western Montana field director for the Montana Wilderness Association.
Porter is a participating member of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative, a group of citizens who come together across party lines to collaborate on ways to mitigate wildfires in the region.
“We’ve got industry, people with wilderness interests, everybody at the table,” said Gary Burnett, executive director of the Blackfoot Challenge, a nonprofit conservation group, and another member of the collaborative.
Rachel Feigley, district ranger for the Lolo National Forest, said the collaborative has had a tangible impact, including helping with a project to thin the forest alongside Highway 83 near the Lolo Forest in Seeley Lake. She emphasized that with additional funds, the Forest Service could do more similarly important work.
“If we had more money, we’d be able to be more successful and do more,” Feigley said.
Not all federal legislation aimed at reducing wildfires has bipartisan support. Porter, with the Montana Wilderness Association, is among those decrying bills introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, that would speed up approvals for cutting down trees. Sen. Daines has thrown his support behind the Barrasso bill.
“The Westerman and Barrasso bills would gut bedrock environmental laws, strip the public of its right to weigh in on decisions, and open the door to unsustainable clearcut logging practices that we haven’t seen in half a century, all without doing anything to address the fire situation,” Porter said. “Harvesting vast tracts of our forests will not prevent fire seasons like the one we had this year.”
But the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act’s proposal to allow for disaster relief funding for fighting wildfires has broad bipartisan support, said Dylan Kruse, policy director for nonprofit Sustainable Northwest.
“This is the most bipartisan piece of legislation sitting before Congress,” Kruse said. “I think both sides want a moderate solution; I think most people see the need to do more work and realize we need to do more restoration and more work in the woods.”
The Blackfoot Challenge’s Gary Burnett said the bill could even save money.
“If we’re trying to reduce the cost of fighting fire and then the fire comes and we lose the tools to be able to reduce the cost of fire, it becomes this never-ending cycle,” Burnett said. “We need to separate the cost of fighting fire from the cost of reducing the cost of fighting fire.”
Kruse said he is hopeful that there is enough momentum in Congress to avoid what he believes is a purely political roadblock: warnings from Republicans like House Speaker Ryan that the bill would increase federal spending.
“It’s been proven time and again by independent reviewers that this act would not increase federal spending,” Kruse said. “It’s money that is already being spent. Over 200 organizations representing diverse interests support this, and in the last congressional session more than 150 bipartisan and bicameral members co-sponsored this.”
And there’s a new sense of urgency.
“We need a fire funding fix and we need it now,” Kruse said. “Otherwise we’re destined to repeat the same fate next year. The West simply cannot afford that any longer.”
Editor’s note: This story is part of Crossing the Divide, a cross-country reporting road trip from WGBH and The GroundTruth Project.