It may not have been the comprehensive legislation that some forestry leaders wanted, but Congress last week finally approved significant federal timber reform. It’s been five years since a bill was first introduced to end the practice of “fire borrowing,” in which the U.S. Forest Service raids its own budget to fight massive wildfires. The practice has meant the Forest Service has much less money for active forest management to prevent the wildfires in the first place.
Now fire borrowing is getting the heave-ho. As part of the omnibus spending bill approved by Congress, and signed by President Trump on Friday, the Forest Service will get $2 billion a year, outside its regular budget, to pay for the cost of wildfire seasons that seem to be getting worse each year. The new funding will start in 2020.
Two Washington legislators – Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers – played key roles in getting the funding approved.
The wildfire deal “puts an end to fire-borrowing and is a start to giving the Forest Service the predictable resources they need to reduce hazardous fuels” such as small trees and underbrush that cause and exacerbate wildfires, (Sen. Maria Cantwell) said.
“This funding boost will allow the Forest Service to prioritize work in areas closest to communities, in order to save lives and reduce the risk of property damage, while still protecting essential public lands and existing environmental laws,” said Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Congress also approved a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program, which will provide much-needed funding to Washington’s rural counties.
“For too long, Eastern Washington has suffered from the lack of action to enact responsible forest management reforms and fix fire borrowing at the U.S. Forest Service. The practice of fire borrowing is a vicious cycle, leading to a decrease in funds for forest management efforts, and increasing the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires on our forests. This fix is long overdue, and I was proud to lead this effort in the House for everyone who relies on our forests or who live through the consequences of catastrophic fire.
“I also made certain my bill to extend the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program was included. This funding is absolutely critical to those in our rural counties. Counties use these funds to pay for public schools, roads and infrastructure, law enforcement, and other municipal needs. Without this funding, people in rural, forest-centered communities get left behind.”
Reaction from the editorial board at the Corvallis (Ore.) Gazette-Times to the news that a solution to fire borrowing was reached:
Our forests, of course, still will burn this summer. But by focusing on a relatively simple answer, and working across party lines, Congress has taken a big step toward breaking a fiery vicious cycle. We’re gratified, but we must confess: We didn’t think this day ever would arrive.
“The great bipartisan work on a fire funding fix shows what can happen when diverse constituents—from landowners to industry to conservationists—and a diverse coalition in Congress work together toward a common cause,” said Tom Martin, President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation. “As the voice of the nation’s family forest owners, we are thrilled to have this fix in place so we can get back to working together to improve our forests, neighbor to neighbor, across ownership boundaries, with public land managers.”