Idaho’s Labrador: When wildland fires flare, ‘watch your wallet’

Idaho GOP Congressman Raul Labrador says U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is misrepresenting the impact of spending cuts on resources for summer firefighting and warns that the Obama administration may use fire to play a “political blame game.”

While visiting the Boise Interagency Fire Center in May with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Vilsack said the U.S. Forest Service would have 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer engines going into the fire season because of the across-the-board cuts ordered by Congress under the sequester. Vilsack put the overall cut for the Forest Service above 7 percent.

Hogwash, says Labrador. “The only problem is that it isn’t true,” writes Labrador in his e-newsletter, released Friday afternoon. “First of all, it’s important to remember that the ‘sequester’ only cut the growth in government spending; it didn’t actually cut spending.  This fiscal year, the federal government will spend $3.7 trillion, which is about $150 billion more than last year.”

Labrador said mismanagement is the issue, not money.

“This summer, should you hear that any fires – and the devastation they bring – are caused by congressional budget cuts, remember to watch your wallet.  The problem isn’t bean-counters in Washington, it’s the excessive amount of fuels in our forests due to improper management.  That’s why it’s so critical that we focus on improving forest management, instead of playing political blame games.  Our forests, and our country, will be stronger for it.”

Idaho GOP Sen. Jim Risch, who joined Vilsack and Jewell on their May tour of NIFC, praised firefighting agencies for doing well with less. Risch said the secretaries will have to make do in an era of spending cuts.

“We got to accept the fact there is not going to be federal funding like there was before,” Risch said. If more firefighting resources are needed, Risch said, he and other Western lawmakers will work to secure get emergency funding. The priority will go to protecting lives and property before desert habitat for sage grouse, he said.

Labrador’s newsletter is available in the link above. I’ve also cut-and-pasted below:

During this year’s fire season, there will likely be many wildfires throughout the western states, including right here in Idaho. In recent years, we have seen fires of unprecedented size and intensity that have caused tremendous damage, and we should be prepared for similar fires this year. There might be one difference, though.  While in previous years, news stories have focused on the size of the fires and the extent of the damage, this year there might be a new issue – a political issue that shouldn’t be an issue at all: funding for fire suppression.

In May, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where he stated that the Forest Service will have fewer firefighters and fewer fire engines for this year’s fire season because of across-the-board spending cuts approved by Congress known as the “sequester.” Additionally, he stated that the Forest Service has been forced to cut funding for thinning and hazardous fuels reductions near communities to ensure the agency can pay firefighters.  These comments are being echoed by other federal agency officials throughout the country. The only problem is that it isn’t true.

First of all, it’s important to remember that the “sequester” only cut the growth in government spending; it didn’t actually cut spending.  This fiscal year, the federal government will spend $3.7 trillion, which is about $150 billion more than last year.

Second, the main reason we’ve been experiencing these devastating fires in recent years – and will likely experience them again this year – is because our forests have been poorly managed, leading to historically high fuel loads.

Over the past 25 years, the Forest Service has dramatically reduced the scope of its management activities in the national forests, mainly because of the increase in litigation over proposed management actions. According to the most recent inventory data, in 2007 the Forest Service harvested 2 billion board feet of timber from National Forest timberlands, or less than 20 percent of what was harvested two decades ago. These timber removals are equivalent to only 6 percent of the new forest growth added in 2007, while at the same time dead and dying timber was equivalent to about 36 percent of the new forest growth.

Last year, the Forest Service stated the need for “accelerated restoration” and active management of at least 65 million acres of National Forest System land, of which, 12.5 million acres need to be thinned with logging equipment before prescribed fire can be used as a tool. This restoration work is crucial to protect communities from wildfire and to support local economies by putting people to work with jobs in the woods, on the roads, and in sawmills.  And yet almost nothing is being done.

The issue isn’t one of money.  In 2012, the state and federal government spent nearly $214 million on firefighting activities in Idaho, most of it on federal lands.  Even so, approximately 1.7 million acres of land burned in Idaho, destroying millions of dollars of property and costing a young firefighter her life.  This is on top of the 9.3 million acres which burned nationwide last year, a modern record.

The truth is, the problem is one of policy, not federal largesse.  Our forests are unhealthy because current federal law and regulations prevent the Forest Service and other federal agencies from properly managing the land.  That is why it is so important that the Forest Service set higher goals and work with Congress to improve the management of our national forests. Additionally, Congress must closely examine current laws and regulations and, where needed, amend those laws and regulations that prevent proper forest management.

Americans want healthy forests. We deserve healthy forests.  They provide clean air, clean water, and habitat for wildlife.  In addition, they do not pose a fire risk to neighboring communities. Unfortunately, we do not have healthy forests today because of misguided federal policies.  As a result, we will continue to spend upwards of $2 billion per year fighting wildfires, instead of creating more resilient and healthy forests that can provide the goods and services people expect from them.

This summer, should you hear that any fires – and the devastation they bring – are caused by congressional budget cuts, remember to watch your wallet.  The problem isn’t bean-counters in Washington, it’s the excessive amount of fuels in our forests due to improper management.  That’s why it’s so critical that we focus on improving forest management, instead of playing political blame games.  Our forests, and our country, will be stronger for it.

On another subject, in case you missed it, please read this article in The Daily Caller, Raul Labrador Takes on Entire MSNBC Panel on Immigration.  As the article explains, “On Wednesday’s broadcast of MSNBC’s ‘NOW with Alex Wagner,’ Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador went head-to-head with the show’s entire left-leaning panel over the issue of immigration.”  To watch the full interview – and you’ll definitely want to, I know I enjoyed it – click here.

Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Idaho Politics