Helena Independent Record: Daines pushing for disaster funding for wildfires

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said he is looking to add certainty to federal fire managers’ budgets by reforming the way the worst wildfires receive federal funding.

Daines was in Clancy on Friday discussing the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015 with a roundtable of state and federal forest managers, conservation and forest dependent business interests. Daines signed onto the act as a senator in January, which would likely end the practice of “fire borrowing” when suppression funding runs out and must be pulled in from other programs.

“The agencies have this cloud hanging over them,” said Richard Stem, retired deputy regional forester. “They’re trying to do these projects but fire makes them hesitant. It causes everybody to blink every year.”

The act creates an emergency funding process much like that for other natural disasters, switching to emergency funding for the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior once wildfire suppression costs exceed 70 percent of the 10-year average.

“I think we have an opportunity to move some of these reforms … it’s been attracting support from both sides of the aisle,” Daines said.

When asked about his top priorities as a freshman senator by chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Daines listed healthy forest reform as one of his highest, he said. Daines noted that wildfire is largely a western issue and was optimistic that the common concerns between Montana and Alaska could bode well for the legislation.

Much of Friday’s discussion focused on increasing preventative fire measures if those programs are not continually borrowed from to fund fire suppression.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Daines said, and that is a concept other senators must understand to garner more bipartisan support.

The Helena and Lewis and Clark National Forests are gearing up for aggressive restoration work, but, “It’s hard to continue to move that with the piece of the budget that is suppression costs,” said Forests’ Supervisor Bill Avey.

The forests have seen a decline in funding for trail and restoration work, he said. That has Avey concerned whether user fees are being spent in the way they were intended as a certain portion is designated to on-the-ground work.

“We need to make the Forest Service mission relevant,” said Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. “If we don’t keep a national interest in our treasures, we’ll lose those opportunities.”

The state of Montana went to funding wildfires similarly to what is proposed in the federal act, culminating with the need for a special legislative session to appropriate funding for wildfire in 2007, said Bob Harrington, state forester with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“It’s made a huge difference in certainty and predictability,” he said. “If you did something proportionate with the Forest Service and Interior, that’ll make a big a big difference too.”

Mary Hollow, land protection specialist for The Nature Conservancy, noted that reforming wildfire funding is only a piece of the solution, and that it will not solve the overarching issue of declining forest budgets. With the bipartisan support behind reform, wildfire funding could act as a centerpiece to build more successful forest legislation, she said.

Seeing a diverse group come to the table and agree on the need for funding reform was the first step in generating support in Washington D.C., Daines said. He anticipated resistance would mostly come from the fiscal side and convincing fellow senators that consistent funding for preemptive measures will mean reduced suppression costs in the long term.