Molly Pitts: Fire Funding Fix

The following article from HFHC Rocky Mountains Regional Director Molly Pitts was originally published in The Timber Line, a publication of the Colorado-Wyoming Society of American Foresters

A recent article in the Denver Post titled “Save our National Forests with a Simple Fire Funding Fix” highlighted the well-known fact that how the Forest Service pays for wildfires desperately needs to be fixed. Without a common-sense answer, the Forest Service will continue to spend more than 50% of their budget each year (56% in 2017), paying for wildfires, leaving little for actual on-the-ground management that can reduce fire hazards.

Everyone involved with forestry and natural resources agrees the fire funding problem must be fixed. It is an issue that has dominated conversations for way too long and it is time to find a solution. Unfortunately, the real conversation is not as simple as the Denver Post article implied.

It is important to remember that fire funding is a national conversation and that while more funding here in Colorado would make a difference because the majority of our forest management projects have not been held up in court, the same can’t be said for other Forest  9 Service Regions. Simply fixing fire funding, without some meaningful, common-sense reforms, will not equal success everywhere. This is why so many members of Congress have continued to fight over this complex issue.

Secondly, while it is easy to look from the outside and compare the two bills mentioned by The Post: Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017 and the Resilient Federal Forests Act; the reality is that over the past year, a lot of internal conversations and negotiations have taken place, with the current proposed solution looking quite different. For instance, a bi-partisan letter signed by 14 different organizations including the Federal Forests Resource Coalition, National Association of State Foresters, National Wild Turkey Federation, Outdoor Industry Association, the Society of American Foresters, the Nature Conservancy, and others was sent to Congress in late February communicating that they supported moving forward with a comprehensive fire funding fix, as long as it had a few basic, common sense management reforms. Some of these reforms include: 1) encouraging collaboration by limiting the range of project alternatives that must be analyzed, 2) allowing Good Neighbor Authority projects to include road reconstruction, 3) effectively addressing the negative impacts of the Cottonwood decision by incorporating the Tester (D) and Daines (R) bill, and 4) allowing for a categorical exclusion for high risk wildfire areas including western pine stands which mirrors language for high risk areas for insect and disease.

Lastly, by prefacing the article with the statement that fire funding is “an unnecessary proxy battle that pits the logging industry against the environmentalists” and then by wrapping up the article by stating “Westerman’s bill has its merits, but holding up a separate funding fix that could get existing projects already approved underway is not in the best interests of Americans or their forests” the editorial board is making this already hard conversation more difficult.

Rather than stating one is better than the other, and throwing specific members of Congress under the bus, we should agree to find a compromise that effectively addresses the entire fire funding issue. As a forester, I encourage visits with your senators and representatives to tell them this nation’s forests need a comprehensive fire-funding fix, with some basic reforms that will provide tools for more on-the-ground work that can reduce current and future hazards.

Molly Pitts: Fire Funding Fix