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Firefighting funding is a knotty issue

Americans will celebrate today’s Fourth of July with dazzling displays of pyrotechnics, but fireworks of another sort could explode later this summer if the U.S. Forest Service and Congress can’t agree on how to pay the bill for big blazes such as the Dog Head Fire that ravaged close to 18,000 acres southeast of Albuquerque last month.

I recently spoke with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico about fire funding in separate interviews. The two Democrats’ remarks revealed a disconnect between the Obama administration and Congress, with Udall describing Vilsack’s near-term approach to wildfire funding as “irresponsible.”

TOM VILSACK

TOM VILSACK

TOM UDALL

TOM UDALL

Vilsack and Udall both support long-term legislation that would classify major wildfires as “natural disasters” to be fought using federal emergency money, similar to how the U.S. pays to contain and mitigate damage from floods and hurricanes. That proposal has been on the table for several years, but congressional consensus remains elusive.

As it stands now, the U.S. Forest Service is forced each summer to borrow heavily from other programs to pay the cost of fighting big blazes like the Dog Head that burned 12 homes in the Manzano Mountains. This so-called “fire borrowing” is gradually gutting other Forest Service programs, including some, such as forest maintenance, that can help prevent these fires in the first place.

Vilsack told me that this year he won’t authorize any more fire borrowing within the Forest Service budget, period. So, if the agency runs out of cash to fight fires this summer, Vilsack said he’ll demand that Congress appropriate more money.

“We’re not going to continue to do what we’ve done over the years of bailing Congress out from its responsibilities here by borrowing,” Vilsack told me. “We’re not borrowing this year, so if the funds run out Congress is going to either find additional resources, or fix this problem that’s been growing more serious every year.”

“We’re instructing the Fire Service to spend the money, so it’s not going to be there,” Vilsack said. “That’s, frankly, the only way I know to get Congress to a point where it will do its responsibility and its duty.”

As the Dog Head Fire raged last month, at one point threatening as many as 1,000 homes, Udall called Vilsack’s stated approach irresponsible.

“If they’ve run out of money and the secretary says we’re not spending any more money, then you are not fighting the fire that could go over to those 1,000 homes,” Udall said. “That seems to me to be irresponsible. If you run out of money and you don’t do borrowing then you’re not fighting fires.”

Udall, a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls the congressional purse strings, said he understands Vilsack’s frustration, but that counting on Congress to deliver an emergency infusion of firefighting money on the fly as fires burn is an iffy proposition. It’s worth noting that Udall did manage last month to convince his Senate colleagues to include an additional $600 million for firefighting in the 2017 federal budget.

“You can deliver up a request for a supplemental appropriation, but we’ve had a very hard time doing appropriations and funding bills on time,” said Udall. “If right at the point you run out of money, you say, ‘We’re not going to spend the money and fight fires,’ I don’t think that’s the way to go.”

Vilsack told me that last year, for the first time in the history of the Forest Service, 52 percent of the agency’s entire budget was spent on fire suppression. Just 20 years ago that figure would have been about 16 percent, he said. There are myriad reasons for the increase, but federal officials cite climate change – and the longer, hotter and drier summers that result – as a chief culprit. Residential and commercial growth near forests also continues to spread like, well, wildfire, exacerbating the risk to life and property.

“If (the percentage of the Forest Service budget devoted to firefighting) continues to increase, and it is projected to, if we don’t change how we fund fire suppression, it will reach two-thirds of our budget in the not-too-distant future,” Vilsack said. “It’s an unsustainable pace.”

The political divide on this issue isn’t strictly partisan. Some Republicans from the West favor classifying wildfires as natural disasters but others, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, contend doing so would set an expensive precedent. Others, such as Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico, contend more forest thinning would help get the problem under control.

“Simply changing the way wildfires are funded will not solve the problems facing our national forests,” Pearce said. “To fix the problem, we must address the real problem: lack of effective management. The most effective way to prevent wildfires are thinning and controlled burns; however, these practices have not been properly utilized by this administration due to radical regulations supported by the far left.

“We must fix these problems and begin to restore forest health across the West instead of simply throwing more money at the problem, which seems to be this administration’s approach to most problems,” Pearce said.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. You can contact Journal Washington Bureau chief Michael Coleman at mcoleman@abqjournal.com.

 

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