Though the smoke has cleared from Montana’s skies, we’re far from extinguishing another major problem facing our forests: the crisis of how we pay for fighting forest fires while continuing to fund essential Forest Service programs that sustain Montana’s outdoor way of life and our outdoor economy.
Instead of focusing his energy on a commonsense solution to this Montana crisis, Sen. Steve Daines is playing political games in Washington, D.C. by supporting the Resilient Federal Forest Act (HR 2647) as the cure-all to our nation’s wildfire problem. This top-down, non-collaborative approach to forest management – authored by a freshman Arkansas congressman – not only fails to address out-of-control wildfire spending, it also undermines bedrock conservation laws and limits opportunities for the public to have a say in the future of its forests.
The root of the wildfire funding crisis lies in how we pay for fire suppression, which is unlike how we pay for responding to other kinds of natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tornadoes. The Forest Service fights fires with money that Congress allocates annually for wildland firefighting. But as wildfires grow bigger and the fire season grows longer, firefighting costs quickly overrun that budget allocation and the Forest Service is forced to “borrow” money from its other programs.
The Forest Service is expected to spend well over a billion dollars fighting wildfires this year. And for the first time in the history of the agency, the Forest Service has already spent the majority of its congressional funding on wildfire suppression, nearing 52 percent of the agency’s budget in FY 2015. By comparison, 16 percent of the budget was consumed by fire suppression 20 years ago.
In late August, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced the agency would have to transfer up to $450 million away from existing programs and into the wildfire suppression account.
As a result of diverting funds to fight fires, vital Forest Service work such as noxious weed control, reducing forest fire fuel loads, improving water quality and maintaining campgrounds, trailheads and roads gets left on the chopping block. What do these cuts look like on the ground? In Kootenai National Forest, hundreds of acres won’t be managed for larch regeneration. In the Flathead National Forest, over 900 acres in the wildland urban interface will not be treated for wildfire. Noxious weeds will go untreated in the Black Canyon of Lolo National Forest. And in Gallatin National Forest the popular Hyalite Loop Trail project is scrapped. The list goes on.
Daines’ support of the HR 2647 comes less than a year after asking Montanans for guidance regarding his approach to national forest legislation. A diverse group of nearly 50 timber, conservation, hunter, angler and business leaders from across Montana responded with a detailed plan for balanced, made-in-Montana collaborative forest management solutions. Unfortunately, Daines chose to ignore this advice and instead throw his support behind a one-sided bill from Arkansas that does not reflect Montana’s collaborative efforts and does not solve the Forest Service’s budget crisis.
We urge Daines to abandon his support of the Resilient Federal Forest Act and actively work with Congress to pass the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 235) – a bill that would save the Forest Service from robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need the agency to carry out its many other vital programs that are essential to our way of life and Montana’s economy.
Column submitted by Scott Brennan, The Wilderness Society; Brian Sybert, Montana Wilderness Association; Dan Vermillion, Sweetwater Travel; Caroline Byrd, Greater Yellowstone Coalition; Addrien Marx, Rovero’s Ace Hardware; Robyn King, Yaak Valley Forest Council; Melynda Harrison, Montana Mountain Mamas; Mack & Connie Long, Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters
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