Here’s the link.
By Hank Kashdan
When U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced on Aug. 16 that the agency would “borrow” $600 million from non-fire-suppression funds to cover the cost of wildfires this season, I could feel the gut shot to Forest Service employees across the nation.
The national forests compose 8 percent of the nation’s land base and provide 40 percent of its fresh water. Imagine having a job where your work contributes directly to improving forest health and reducing the risk of wildfire, only to have funds for your project taken at the last minute.
As director of budget for the Forest Service during the height of fire borrowing in 2000 through 2005, I managed the largest fire borrowing in the agency’s history, including 2002, when $999 million was moved from other budget lines to cover fire-suppression costs. Then in 2009, I thought this senseless process was over with passage of the FLAME Act (Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act). Not so. As the Forest Service enters its second consecutive year of fire borrowing, it is clear the FLAME Act has been ignored.
Although this year’s borrowing of $600 million may not be the largest, it will likely be the most impactful. With sequestration, the Forest Service is increasingly getting work done through third-party partnerships. In greater proportions, this on-the-ground work is focused on treating the land to make it less vulnerable to serious wildfire, and it is exactly this work that is being cancelled, with the cooperating third parties left “holding the bag.” Our first responders who risk their lives on the fire lines, the communities and residents who live and work adjacent to these lands, and employees of the land management agencies deserve more. And in fact, with only a reasonable legislative effort, this problem can be fixed.
Recent press articles cite critics who say Congress is to blame. As a Forest Service employee who lived wildfire funding for the last 15 years of my career, I know the blame is very shareable. Former President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama and Congress own this problem equally. Even Mother Nature takes a hit in the blame game.
During the FLAME Act development, the Bush administration opposed alternatives to the funding process that caused fire borrowing. With the nation in economic crisis, the Obama administration wanted no distraction from focus on recovery and continued the Bush administration’s opposition. Only through advocacy from a coalition spanning the spectrum from the most active environmental organizations to the largest forest products producers was Congress compelled to enact FLAME. It was a victory for good government and an example of cooperation among diverse interests.
Then came Mother Nature, delivering successive years of “below average” fire seasons that resulted in budgeted suppression funds being sufficient (2009 through 2011). The good news: Reserves of cash totaling $1.16 billion were generated, which under the FLAME Act would be available for “above-average fire years.” The bad news: Nature’s kindness erased the short-term memories of the Obama administration and Congress. As the nation faced its economic woes, the cash reserves were ripe for the taking, and it didn’t take long. Considering these reserves, the administration low-balled its request for suppression funding, and Congress obliged by erasing the reserves from the ledger. Nature then retaliated with two years of hot and dry conditions, leading to large wildfires and the fire borrowing that Forest Service Chief Tidwell announced Aug. 16.
With the nation’s budget challenges a national priority, it is unfortunately certain that any cash reserves from below-average fire years will be too tempting a target for use by the administration and Congress. Thus, we must acknowledge that the FLAME Act is ultimately not going work. Thankfully, there can be a permanent solution. It now appears the administration and Congress are willing to consider a fix. The solution is to amend the Stafford Act (authority under which FEMA covers the cost of national disasters) to include wildfire. Hurricanes are like wildfires; a specific date for the event can’t be determined, but future occurrence is a certainty. The Stafford Act provides FEMA with funding that doesn’t disrupt its internal operations. This same authority could be available to the states and federal land management agencies to cover the cost of wildfire suppression.
An end to this senseless process is possible, but only if the president and Congress know they have to act. Let’s get this fixed.
Something we can all support?