Senate Hearing Examines Forest Service’s Wildfire Suppression Funding


On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing entitled, “Wildfire Preparedness & Forest Service 2015 Fiscal Year Budget.” The primary focus of the hearing was to get a first-hand account of the current state of wildfires across the country and to examine pending legislation aimed at reforming the way the U.S. Forest Service pays for wildfire suppression.

The hearing included testimony from two separate panels. The first panel included three Senators: Sen. Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), and three local officials, including: Ken Pimlott, Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection; Dan Gibbs, Summit County (CO) Commissioner, and; David Tenney, Navajo County (AZ) Supervisor. The second panel included leadership from two separate federal land management agencies: Thomas Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and; Kim Thorsen, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Safety, Resource Protection and Emergency Services.

From the first panel, Sen. Feinstein and Mr. Pimlott provided a snapshot of the current fire environment in the state of California. Senator Feinstein said that every county in California is currently in a state of drought disaster, with 69 percent of the state experiencing extreme drought. Which, she added, made much of the state primed for major and catastrophic wildfires. Mr. Pimlott also noted that the state has seen an above-average number of fires this year, with the length of the wildfire season increasing a total of 70 days in the past four decades. In the second witness panel, Ms. Thorsen confirmed the “extreme drought” conditions for California and much of the Southwestern region of the county.

Through much of the hearing, it was clear that the current “fire-borrowing” system of the U.S. Forest Service is unsustainable with the rising costs of fire suppression across the country. The current “fire-borrowing” system has the Forest Service take money from local Forest Service units and transfers it to national fire suppression efforts. The depletion of local Forest Service budgets prevents adequate forest management, hazardous fuel reduction and invasive species protection programs from operating.

Senator Murkowski (R-AK) said that there was currently a “financial crisis within the Forest Service,” that she attributed to three primary factors: the unhealthy state of U.S. forests around the country, the expansion of development into national forests and the changing climate that has led to more severe droughts. Numerous individuals commented on the cost of fire suppression versus more proactive fire prevention. Senator Udall (D-CO) estimated that for every one dollar spent on fire mitigation, four dollars would be saved in fire suppression. Mr. Tenney said that it costs approximately $900 per acre to put out a fire, while only $128 per acre for proper preventative measures. However, with the current “fire-borrowing” system, local Forest Service units are often left without their appropriated funds to carry out the crucial fire mitigation programs.

Much of the rest of the hearing was focused on bills offered in the Senate to address the problems with the funding for the Forest Service. On Monday, Sens. McCain, Barrasso (R-WY) and Flake (R-AZ) introduced the FLAME Act Amendments of 2014 (S.2593), which focused on funding issues facing the Forest Service and U.S. Department of Interior (DoI). The bill would prohibit “fire-borrowing,” while changing the budget forecasting model to a more modern system that would result in full funding of fire suppression operations. The bill also diverts more funds to hazardous fuel reduction projects and incentivizes funding to reform active forest management programs.

Another bill discussed at the hearing was the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S.1875). Among other wildfire-related sections, the bill would allow for funding for catastrophic wildfires to come from general disaster funding, rather than the Forest Service budget. Chief Tidwell said that the one percent of the most savage wildfires account for nearly 30 percent of the entire fire suppression budget. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would allow for the most extreme wildfires to have suppression funded by disaster funding accounts. This would save the Forest Service a significant portion of their budget to be used as appropriated without an increased cost to the American taxpayer. Senator Crapo (R-ID), the lead Republican sponsor on the bill, added that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) did not score the bill, meaning that it would have no effect on the federal budget.

As the hearing wrapped up, Sen. Risch (R-ID) quickly discussed the potential for there to be a reconciliation of S.2593 and S.1875. Both bills are aimed at reforming the way the Forest Service and DoI fund fire suppression, yet offer separate and non-conflicting solutions to the problem.

“I am encouraged to see a bipartisan acknowledgement of the problems associated with fire-borrowing,” said NFFE National President William R. Dougan. “I am hopeful that this spirit of bipartisan collaboration will result in legislation that will provide an effective solution to adequately fund fire suppression while providing opportunities to reduce fire hazard on federal lands.”