Dreaded Forest Service ‘fire borrowing’ could return in 2018

U.S. Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen recently told a U.S. Senate panel her agency faces a potential $300 million budget shortfall due to increasing wildfire suppression costs.

This means once again the agency could be forced to “borrow” money from non-fire programs to cover the shortfall, including funding intended for preventative forest health programs.  This is despite a $500 million increase the Forest Service received to fight fires this year- above and beyond the 10-year average for wildfire suppression costs.  And it’s nearly two months after Congress passed its wildfire funding “fix” meant to end fire borrowing.  As we previously reported, the fix doesn’t even take effect until 2020. 

Nonetheless, members of Congress are eager to see results from the wildfire funding legislation, which was combined with some modest forest management reforms in the $1.3 trillion “omnibus” appropriations bill.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) urged Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen not to “squander the good will” from the omnibus bill.  She said the Forest Service needs to ensure our forests are “productive again,” as they move to increase “the pace and scale needed on our overstocked forests to reduce the risk for catastrophic fires.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said the Forest Service “needs to get back to work in the woods and start getting ahead of these infernos that are threatening our communities.”

Unsustainable firefighting costs are just a symptom of a larger problem: millions of acres of unmanaged, unhealthy and fire-prone forests. 

That’s why Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) correctly observed that the omnibus bill was just “a small battle in a longer term war that we face in liberating the Forest Service.”  More needs to be done, as obstructive litigation and agency “analysis paralysis” continue to stymie the agency.  Sen. Daines noted the agency’s current process to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has become an “unnecessary and crippling” barrier to active forest management.

It can take the Forest Service up to four years, at a cost of over $1 million for the agency to complete a single Environmental Impact Statement for a forest project.  To their credit, the Forest Service is undertaking a rulemaking process to make decisions more quickly, with the goal of cutting its NEPA costs by 40 percent by 2020.  We will alert you when the Forest Service releases its proposed rule this summer for public comment.

Forest Management Reforms in House Farm Bill
On April 18 the House Agriculture Committee approved the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (HR 2), also known as the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill includes several forest management reforms to pick up where the Omnibus bill left off. Similar to the Resilient Federal Forests Act passed last year, the U.S. House focused on expanding categorical exclusions under NEPA to speed projects, up to 6,000-acres that:

  • Expedite salvage operations in response to catastrophic events
  • Meet forest plan goals for early successional forests
  • Manage “hazard trees”
  • Improve or restore National Forest System lands or reduce the risk of wildfire.
  • Forest restoration
  • Infrastructure-related forest management activities.
  • Managing insect and disease infestation.

The next Farm Bill offers an important opportunity to break the endless cycle of escalating wildfire suppression costs and other obstacles to better management of our forests.  The U.S. House is expected to vote on its version of the Farm Bill this summer. We’ll keep you updated.

Dreaded Forest Service ‘fire borrowing’ could return in 2018