(Originally published in Environment & Energy Daily, Thursday, May 26, 2016) Marc Heller, E&E reporter
A bipartisan group of senators proposed draft legislation yesterday that would spare the Forest Service from borrowing money from forest management to fight wildfires while encouraging more forest clearing to remove potential fuel for fires.
The draft, called the “Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act,” would allow the Forest Service and the Interior Department to tap a budget cap adjustment when the cost of fighting fires exceeds the 10-year average.
That provision is in line with requests Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made repeatedly to Congress, culminating with his pledge this year to refuse to engage in any more budget borrowing for fires.
It also resembles the “Wildfire Disaster Funding Act” proposed by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) in 2013. Both of those senators joined in crafting of the new draft.
The draft, released by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), would also open the way to more forest clearing that officials say will help prevent dangerous forests near populated areas and high-value watersheds.
“As fire season begins again, it’s clear that we have a real and growing problem on our hands, and to resolve it we need a comprehensive solution that addresses both wildfire funding and forestry management,” Murkowski said in a news release. “This bipartisan discussion draft is an important first step toward ending the destructive practice of fire borrowing and restoring healthy, fire-resistant forests.”
The draft would provide new budget authority of up to $1.41 billion for combating fire in fiscal 2017, and $1.46 billion in fiscal 2018.
Excess funds from low-fire years could be used for fuel reduction work to lessen fire risks in future years, Murkowski’s office said.
According to the committee, officials would be able to tap an alternative process for reviewing forest management projects, as in reducing fuel for potential forest fires if they believe an emergency exists.
The proposal would also limit the number of alternatives to forest management projects that would be considered as part of an environmental assessment, which Murkowski’s office said would “focus and expedite” the reviews.
Other provisions would provide for use of drones and global positioning systems in fighting and preventing fires and would provide up to $500 million over 10 years to help communities reduce wildfire risks, property loss and suppression costs.
The draft also requires an inventory of young growth in the Tongass National Forest before the Forest Service can change the forest management plan there.
Murkowski said she would accept public comment on the proposal through June 13.
Although the proposal could resolve the budget-borrowing issue, it doesn’t look likely to settle more fundamental disagreements about how the federal government approaches forest fires.
“They continue to treat wildfires — including megafires — as a disaster when numerous studies have indicated wildfires, including large and severe ones, are ecologically beneficial and necessary,” said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, Ore.
The measure doesn’t seem to control costs, DellaSala said, and the forest management and logging provisions wouldn’t protect homes or communities. That purpose would be better served by concentrating protection within 100- to 200-foot zones around homes, rather than in the backcountry, he said.
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