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Vilsack pitches revamped wildfire budget to firefighters

(originally published in Greenwire, an E&E Publishing Service)

by Marc Heller, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, May 6, 2016

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack took his plea for a new approach to paying for wildfire fighting to the nation’s fire departments last night, telling hundreds of firefighters that Congress needs to set up disaster funding for forest fires.

At the annual National Fire and Emergency Services dinner, Vilsack said the borrowing the Forest Service does within its budget to pay for firefighting hurts the Agriculture Department’s programs for small, volunteer fire departments.

Vilsack’s proposal would allow the Forest Service to raise its cap on fire suppression funding after wildfire fighting costs exceed 70 percent of the 10-year average. That would end the agency’s practice of borrowing funds from other accounts to meet rising firefighting costs, officials say.

“Every year, we have to borrow from other accounts. Some years it’s $100 million, other years it’s over half a billion dollars,” Vilsack said. “The impacts of this borrowing doesn’t just impact the Forest Service. It impacts the communities that are represented here today.”

So far, Vilsack’s request hasn’t fully caught on in Congress. Legislation (H.R. 167) from Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) to set up disaster funding for the most severe wildfires has 146 co-sponsors but hasn’t been considered in committee.

Another bill, the “Resilient Federal Forests Act” (H.R. 2647) from Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), has passed the House along party lines but hasn’t advanced in the Senate. That bill would open forests to more logging, which advocates say is a means to removing potential forest fire fuel, among other benefits.

The government’s battle against forest fires has critics, who say agencies should be willing to accept some fires as part of a natural cycle, while protecting homes in fire-prone areas.

Federal attention and news coverage overemphasize the “disaster” element of forest fires without considering the ecological benefits of fire and natural recovery, said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Ore., a group that focuses on climate change. The Geos Institute puts much of the blame for forest fires on a changing climate, rather than lack of logging, for instance.

Vilsack said his request comes as the department has expanded aerial support to fight fires, acquired more helicopters and explored new ways to use wood that’s taken from the forest, including for energy and new construction techniques.

But the agency could do more to promote healthy forests and prevent fires if Congress ends budget borrowing, Vilsack said.

“We’re asking them to simply look at the most intense, largest, most expensive fires as the natural disasters they are,” he said.

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