Letters From the West

Wyden and Crapo join forces to push new fire funding plan

(from left, standing) Sens. Ron Wyden, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch at the National Interagency Fire Center in 2013.

(From left, standing) Sens. Ron Wyden, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch at he National Interagency Fire Center in 2013.

Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo invited his Democratic counterpart in Oregon, Ron Wyden, to tour the National Interagency Fire Center last summer.

Since Wyden is the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he carries a lot of sway when it comes to fire policy. The two men were joined by Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, who serves on the committee.

Just before the senators went home for Christmas, Wyden and Crapo introduced a bill that seeks to fix the continuing problem of fire funding – where programs to reduce fire costs are robbed to pay the annual firefighting costs. Since 2000 these agencies have run out of money to fight emergency fires eight times. This has kept federal agencies, especially the Forest Service, from getting anywhere near ahead on the issue of forest restoration despite a huge consensus on how to proceed.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013 would transform emergency funding for fire response. The bill creates a budget cap adjustment for a 30 percent portion of wildfire disaster funding for the Forest Service and the Interior Department, similar to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency manages other natural disasters.

The additional funding would be separated from other agency funds, and could free up as much as $412 million in discretionary funds for logging, thinning and restoration that help to reduce fire risk and costs. This is similar to an approach that was suggested last summer by Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, a key member of the House Appropriations Committee.

This approach also has wide support from state foresters, timber industry groups and environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and the Wilderness Society.

“We’re asking House and Senate appropriators to adopt the language in the Wyden/Crapo bill as they work to fund the remainder of Fiscal Year 2014,” said Cecilia Clavet, a fire policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy. “We cannot afford another year of inadequate funding levels that force agencies to take away from already constrained programs, including the very ones that would decrease fire risk and costs like restoration.”

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West