Bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act Seeks Support

Arlington, Virginia; February 17, 2014 — An incredibly broad spectrum of 160 of conservation, timber, tribal, recreation, sportsmen, ranching and employer groups delivered a compelling letter to Congress today requesting support for the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA). This act has been introduced this session to both the House and Senate, sponsored by members of both parties.

Representatives Simpson (R-ID) and Schrader (D-OR) introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 (H.R. 3992) on February 6, 2014. Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Crapo (R-ID) first introduced the act in the waning days of 2013 (S. 1875).

What the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would do:

This bill ensures funding for both wildfire first responders and for land managers who care for public forests and streams. For the first time, it would create an emergency funding process for fire response, mirroring the funding mechanism FEMA depends on to respond to other natural disasters. This structure would prevent “borrowing” from other USDA Forest Service (USFS) and Department of the Interior (DOI) programs, which disrupts a wide variety of projects, some of which help reduce the risk of future megafires.

When the USFS and DOI wildfire suppression expenses exceed 70 percent of the 10-year average, this bill would provide funding from disaster funding sources (similar to FEMA). This would likely eliminate the need to transfer funds from non-fire suppression accounts when fire suppression funds run out.

Currently, USFS and DOI are the only agencies required to pay for natural disaster response out of their annual discretionary budgets.

  • Since 2000, these agencies have run out of money to fight emergency fires eight times.
  • In the last two years, more than $1 billion was “borrowed” from Forest Service programs to cover fire suppression shortfalls.

Many factors contribute to the increase in wildfire frequency and severity, including changes in climate, build-up of hazardous fuels, and increasing populations in the wildland-urban interface. This past decade fires have burned 50 percent more land than in the previous four decades; the fire season has expanded by two months; and the average size of fires has increased by a factor of five since the 1970s. The frequency and severity of these wildfires need to be matched by significant levels of funding to protect people, water and wildlife.

“The broad spectrum of groups supporting this legislation speaks to the critical need for a new funding approach to wildfire suppression,” says Cecilia Clavet, senior policy advisor on fire and forest restoration for The Nature Conservancy. “Anyone interested in the health of our American forests has a stake in ensuring that the wildfire suppression problem is resolved. This bill does just that by funding a portion of fire suppression like other natural disasters, which will finally provide agencies much needed stable budgets.”

“We need establish a long-term solution for fire suppression funding that will finally end the senseless series of fire transfers and guarantee firefighters adequate resources to protect our communities and lands,” says Darrel L. Kenops, executive director of National Association of Forest Service Retirees.

“We need an approach to fire suppression funding which lets Forest Service manage the forests, instead of constantly moving funding to emergency suppression needs. Wildfire costs and fire borrowing disrupts forest management and other key programs,” says Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resources Coalition. “This bipartisan bill will help put the Forest Service back in the woods doing what they do best. We appreciate Congressmen Wyden’s, Crapo’s, Simpson’s and Schrader’s leadership on this issue. They’ve done yeoman’s work in developing this approach to fire budgeting. Anyone who cares about our national forests should get behind this bill.”

“Important USDA Forest Service programs can be and are significantly impacted by fire transfers, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, urban and community forestry, roads and trail maintenance, wildlife, recreation” says Rebecca Turner, senior director of programs and policy of American Forests, “including the very programs that would reduce wildfire risk, like State Fire Assistance and restoration. This new proposed mechanism will help stop this from happening.”

“The practice of transferring funds from non-fire programs has undermined the agencies’ ability to help sustainably manage the nation’s forests,” says Chris Maisch, Alaska state forester and president of the National Association of State Foresters. “State foresters believe this new approach is needed to enable the USFS and DOI to deliver on their missions and implement needed forest management activities on all of America’s forests, both public and private. Our forests deliver many essential benefits to society such as wood products, jobs, clean air and water and wildlife habitat; but these benefits are at risk if we don’t take action to stop the destructive cycle of fire transfers.”

“The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is the kind of common-sense approach we need to address the well-being of our public lands,” adds John Audley, president of Sustainable Northwest. “By treating wildfire like the natural disaster it is, this bill will end the troubling cycle of fire funding transfers, give federal agencies greater certainty in land management planning, and ensure that forest restoration funds are used for the purposes they were intended.”

“Many people may associate wildfire funding with America’s publically owned forests, but the truth is transfers from non-fire accounts the past several years have significantly affected America’s family owned forests, too,” shares Tom Martin, president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation. “These 22 million family forest owners, who make up the largest forest ownership group in the United States, rely on critical Forest Service program resources that have been affected by program cuts due to this budgeting problem.”