U.S. Sen. Steve Daines joined other Republicans Wednesday in calling reforms to wildfire spending inadequate without also including reforms to forest management policy.
In a conference call, Daines, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, challenged wildfire funding requests from the Obama administration and calls from some state and federal lawmakers to end the practice of “fire borrowing” without also passing reforms to limit litigation and increase the pace and scale of forest management.
“It’s irresponsible and a missed opportunity to only address funding issues without reform,” Daines said in light of the recent fire season across the West.
Westerman, along with Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, is among the House sponsors of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. The legislation would require those litigating forest projects or policy to post a bond and categorically exclude projects that have collaborative support with the goal of increasing projects’ size and implementation.
The act would also end fire borrowing, which has support as a standalone reform in separate legislation.
An end to fire borrowing would treat only the symptom of the problem, namely decades of mismanagement of forests on federal lands, Daines said.
“We need to end fire borrowing, we all agree on that, but we need to treat the root system,” he said.
Fire borrowing, expected to exceed $700 million nationally this year, taps funding from other programs when the cost of fighting fires exceeds budgets. Proposed reforms would shift that excess cost to emergency accounts similar to other natural disasters such as hurricanes.
While the fire season has been less severe in Montana compared to states such as Washington and California, Forest Service Region — 1 which includes Montana, northern Idaho, North Dakota and a small portion of South Dakota — supplied more than $47.6 million to offset costs incurred fighting fires nationally, according to regional public affairs specialist Elizabeth Slown.
The Helena and Lewis and Clark National forests saw more than 56,000 acres burn and spent a combined $11 million fighting large wildfires including Cabin Gulch, Sucker Creek, Benchmark and Family Peak Complex fires, said Helena National Forest public affairs officer Kathy Bushnell.
Wildfire borrowing for the forests totaled more than $800,000 or around 3 percent of the budget from programs, some of them already contracted, such as noxious weed suppression or repairs to roads, she said.
Healthier forests are not just a western issue, Westerman said. Fighting fires, accelerated by drier climates, takes away money from the whole country, he said.
“Once we’ve spent money on suppression, we’ve already lost the battle,” he said, adding that the Obama administration has missed the mark by not emphasizing management reform.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, does not support the Resilient Federal Forests Act in its current form, said communications director Marnee Banks.
“He has heard from a lot of conservation groups and other stakeholders that that bill only addresses one part of forest management and that’s the timber cut,” she said.
Tester would support a more collaboration-driven bill that includes components for wilderness, recreation and timber, Banks said. He also believes a single-pronged bill will not have the support to get through Congress, she added.
Tester supports both reforms to fire borrowing and policy, but would vote for a bill that only addressed borrowing given the opportunity, Banks said.
Litigation reform has seen the most pushback in discussions of the Resilient Federal Forests Act, which has already passed the House, Westerman said.
Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a frequent litigant against the Forest Service, questions the constitutionality of forcing litigants to post bonds, saying it violates the First Amendment.
Westerman maintained that bonding does nothing to prohibit litigation, but makes litigators accountable
Litigators are primarily interested in obstruction and are often unwilling to engage in collaboration, Daines said.
Garrity points to a slumping timber market and the pending expiration of a tariff on Canadian timber as evidence that the bill is misguided in its goals and will drive the price of lumber further down.
“So, of course, the government solution to Zinke’s bill and Daines’ proposal to dump money in an errant market will make the problem worse,” he said.
On the point of ending fire borrowing, pumping more money into fighting wildfires will give federal agencies unlimited funds, and taxpayers should not be asked to fund expensive and often ineffective policy without oversight, he said.
“The problem with unlimited funds is there’s no accountability and it’s not going to solve the problem,” Garrity said. “I think you have to be wary any time you give bureaucrats more money.”
Wildfires are driven by climactic conditions, not logging, and Garrity called it hypocritical to support increased wildfire funding while also supporting the coal industry contributing to a warming climate and longer fire seasons.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act is currently before the Senate Agriculture Committee. Daines said he was confident disagreements over components such as litigation reform could be worked out and gain additional support.
Getting a reform bill through the Senate and onto the president’s desk will take 60 votes, Daines said, meaning a bipartisan consensus is needed. Three “must pass” bills, the highway bill, an omnibus bill and debt ceiling bill, will soon see votes and a timber reform bill could potentially be attached, he said.
Daines hopes to see a spending and policy reform bill through Congress by the end of the year