D.C. Politics Hurt Montana Wildland Firefighters

Congress adjourned for 2015 failing to fix this major funding problem

By Allison Linville

Our nation has a serious problem in how we fund wildland firefighting. As a former fire lookout and wildfire dispatcher, I have seen friends and colleagues work endless hours in a dangerous job to defend local communities time and time again. I believe they deserve better support from the U.S. Congress.

Despite widespread agreement on the seriousness of the fire funding problem – and the solution – some members of Congress are playing politics by making extreme demands that would block public involvement in the management of our national forests.

Decades of fuel loading, combined with an ever-warming climate, have left our forests prone to uncontrollable wildfires and have resulted in more and more large fire events. The cost of fighting these fires is staggering: in 2015, federal agencies spent well over $1.5 billion. That number grows every year.

For the first time, firefighting will consume over half of the U.S. Forest Service budget. In another decade, over two-thirds of the agency’s budget will be spent on suppression of large fires.

The solution is clear: fund firefighting for the most extreme fires the same way we fund all other natural disasters. This way, we provide the support fire managers and firefighters need, while ensuring that the Forest Service has the tools it needs to manage our forests for the benefit of the American people.

That’s what the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act does. It allows money that the Forest Service allocates to various departments – including timber management – to receive funding while fire season is in full swing.

Every year, the Forest Service borrows funding from other departments during fire season, sidelining regular forest management practices like trail maintenance and fuels reduction. This bill will fix that problem, allowing the Forest Service to return to the work of managing our forests.

One of the most bipartisan bills in Congress, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has incredible support: 146 members of the House of Representatives and 21 members of the Senate have co-sponsored legislation to treat fires like other natural disasters.

Simple enough, right? Not quite. Members of the House, aided by a handful of senators, decided to take the fire funding legislation hostage. Their demands for freeing it include radical changes in forest management that many Montanans don’t support.

To make matters worse, Montana’s junior senator, Steve Daines, joined a congressman from Arkansas and other House extremists and their demands to put logging above all other forest uses and cut off public involvement in forest management at the knees. “It’s irresponsible and a missed opportunity to only address funding issues without reform,” Daines said.

Montanans disagree. What is irresponsible is withholding vital fire funding for a program that desperately needs it. Instead of stopping at realistic, balanced forest management, Daines wants to swing the pendulum to another extreme – one where timber harvesting is first and all other uses, including recreation and fire prevention, are a distant second. Daines argues that the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act does not address the “root” of the problem, but he is wrong. How to better prevent large wildfires than allow the Forest Service to focus on fuels reduction and defensible space?

Rapidly rising wildfire funding costs have led to drastic cuts in funding for forest and watershed restoration – 22 percent in 15 years, maintenance of recreation sites has been slashed by two-thirds, and road maintenance has been cut in half.

Here in Montana, these costs are real. In southwestern Montana, plans for a popular Hyalite Loop Trail were scrapped, and road maintenance was delayed. In western Montana, prescriptive forest thinning for fuel reduction was cut in the Bitterroot, and larch regeneration plans were upended in the Kootenai.

Back in D.C., Congress adjourned for 2015 failing to fix this major funding problem that threatens our communities and our outdoor way of life.

Please, Senator Daines, for the sake of our forests and all of us who enjoy them, stand up for our wildland firefighters. Support a clean, bipartisan solution to our wildfire-funding problem.

Playing politics with our forests isn’t good for any of us.

Allison Linville lives in Missoula.

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