What others say: Congress breaks cycle of fire costs

  • By Corvallis Gazette-Times editorial
  • Friday, April 6, 2018 12:38pm
  • Opinion

The oddest thing happened last week in Washington, D.C., as members of Congress (and then President Donald Trump) rushed to keep the government open so that they could blow out of town on spring break:

The spending bill that Congress passed (and which Trump then signed, but not without some veto bluster) included a bipartisan plan that finally takes a big step toward ending the practice known as “fire borrowing.”

Frequent readers of this page know all about fire borrowing: In recent years, the agencies in charge of battling blazes on federal land (the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service) have been forced to raid non-fire-related accounts just to cover firefighting costs.

The current funding mechanism is tied to a 10-year average for wildfires, but as fires burn hotter and longer each year, the amount of money allocated under the formula runs out earlier each year. (The Forest Service and the BLM spent $2.7 billion last year fighting fires, the costliest season on record.)

It’s not as if the firefighters are able to simply walk away from the firelines when those budgets run dry. That’s when the agencies are forced to dip into other accounts.

The worst part of this fire borrowing practice is that the budgets raided to help cover firefighting bills often are for maintenance projects on federal lands, such as efforts to thin forests and to remove the undergrowth that helps to fuel the most intense fires. The result: a vicious cycle as poorly maintained forest lands burn hotter and hotter in succeeding years.

The spending bill approved last week establishes a contingency account through 2027, with annual deposits starting at $2.1 billion and increasing to $2.9 billion. Money from the account would only be used after funds from usual firefighting accounts are exhausted.

The budget deal includes $100 million for fire prevention projects and recreation programs and enables utilities to work with the Forest Service to prevent trees from touching power lines and starting wildfires.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden played a key role in brokering the deal, according to news accounts, but the Democrat was joined by other members of Congress, from both parties.

“Common sense has finally prevailed when it comes to how the Forest Service pays to fight record-breaking forest fires that devastate homes and communities in Oregon and the West,” Wyden said in a statement. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, a Democrat, and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, a Republican, helped push the effort through the Senate. GOP Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington also played key roles.

There was complaining among other lawmakers that the measure didn’t do enough to improve the health of the nation’s forests. In particular, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, was pushing a House-backed bill that called for faster approval of logging projects to reduce the risk of fire in national forests.

In general, we believe it would be worthwhile to get people back to work in our national forests. But Bishop’s House bill is a good example of the kind of legislation that has short-circuited earlier efforts to fix at least part of the fire borrowing problem. Every time a relatively simple fix to the problem was proposed, it got weighted down with a variety of proposals regarding the management of federal lands. Eventually, the extra weight would drag down the proposal, Congress would adjourn and we’d watch our forests go up in smoke as the bills mounted.

Our forests, of course, still will burn this summer. But by focusing on a relatively simple answer, and working across party lines, Congress has taken a big step toward breaking a fiery vicious cycle. We’re gratified, but we must confess: We didn’t think this day ever would arrive.

— Corvallis Gazette-Times,

March 26

More in Opinion

Jodi Taylor is the board chair for Alaska Policy Forum. (Courtesy photo)
Private school, state reimbursement: family choice

By Jodi Taylor Alaskan parents have a legitimate right to choose the… Continue reading

t
Opinion: It’s time for bold action to protect our fisheries

Our fisheries feed the world and sustain our unique cultures and communities.

The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Hard to fill positions?

Paying poverty wages to support staff, secretaries and custodians is unacceptable yet routine behavior by our district

A copy of the State of Alaska Official Ballot for the June 11, 2022, Special Primary Election is photographed on May 2, 2022. (Peninsula Clarion staff)
Choosing a candidate – Who will best represent us in D.C.?

Voters are encouraged to do homework before casting a vote

Tourists watch as one of two cubs belonging to an 18-year-old sow black bear crosses the path between groups of tourists visiting the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Tourists have pushed us to critical mass in parts of Juneau

I don’t go to the glacier in the summer now to hike or watch bears.

Sens. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, left, and Robert Myers, R-North Pole, read through one of 41 amendments submitted to the state’s omnibus budget bill being debate on the floor of the Alaska State Senate on Monday, May 9, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Opinion: The Alaska Senate’s foolish gamble

“All these conservative people just spent all our money”

Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships. (logo provided)
Point of View: A few ideas for Mental Health Awareness Month

What are some things you can practice this month and subsequently apply to your life?

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Opinion: Alaskans should prepare for wildfire season

Several past large fire seasons followed snowy winters or unusually rainy springs

Alex Koplin is a founding member of Kenai Peninsula Votes. (courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: 1 candidate dined, 47 to go

By Alex Koplin Last month, I wrote a satirical piece for the… Continue reading

The logo of the Homer Trails Alliance.
Point of View: Connecting our community through trails

Homer is booming with housing development and the viability of long-standing trails is threatened