Congress Should Stop Wildfires From Spreading Effects in the East | Commentary

Recently the National Interagency Fire Center announced six new large wildfires have been reported across five states. This brings the year’s total wildfires to 14,213, and it’s only April. While wildfires are, in most cases, natural occurrences that can be good for forests when managed, the funding to manage large ones has gotten way out of control and deserves the immediate attention of Congress.

Legislators from the Eastern United States likely associate wildfires with America’s public lands of the West and think it does not apply to their state or residents. They may also not think twice then about the need to fix how wildfires are budgeted, as proposed in the Wildfire Disaster Funding Acts (HR 167, S 235).

But those east of the Mississippi can no longer ignore this problem. When looked at more holistically, elected leaders would see that wildfires have far reaching effects, even to the East, and to effectively manage them, from a funding standpoint, prompt change is needed.

Currently, Congress sets the budget for emergency fires as part of annual appropriations based on predictions that are hard to make given the uncertainty of where and how wildfires will strike. If these funds are used up, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior must “borrow” funds from other programs within their agencies. The funds are often pulled from programs that assist private and family woodland owners all across the country with land management, forest restoration and fire prevention.

In the past 15 years, this situation has happened eight times, where funds were pulled from preventative or restorative programs that aid forest land across the U.S., and transferred to the West to fight wildfires.

This wildfire funding problem can be extremely disruptive to programming that needs long-term investments to ensure forest health or restore critical forest ecosystems. Ironically, it’s often most disruptive to programs that are designed to get ahead of the problem and mitigate underbrush and fuel for wildfires that, in the long run, will reduce costs.

Another element to consider is the majority of the nation’s forests — 56 percent of the more than 751 million wooded acres — are actually in private hands. And nearly two-thirds of these acres are owned not by timber companies, but by 22 million individuals and families. And, these private woodlands largely reside in the Northeastern and Southeastern portion of the states.

Key programs, such as the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Stewardship Program, help these family woodland owners care for and sustain healthy forests, which provide innumerable benefits. This program engages family woodland owners in delivering public benefits — from reducing sedimentation in the Lake Superior Basin to longleaf restoration in the Piney Woods of Mississippi, to wildfire mitigation in critical watersheds in Oregon and Colorado.

If we don’t fix the funding structure for wildfire disaster, these forests and programs could lose out in big ways.

Luckily, the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act provides a solution. The bill would treat true emergency wildfires much like other natural disasters such as hurricanes, with which states like Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina should be all too familiar. This will solve both the “fire borrowing” problem and allow the agencies to refocus funding to their land management missions, not just firefighting.

While the bills in both the House and the Senate have gained considerable bipartisan support from states in the West, strangely, support among Eastern and Southern delegations is lacking. Recently, family forest owners from across the country met with representatives on Capitol Hill to share the story of the impact of this wildfire funding problem and urge support for a legislative fix.

In addition, this week Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie celebrated 25 years of success for those key U.S. Forest Service programs: the Forest Stewardship, Forest Legacy and Urban & Community Forestry programs. These programs have made tremendous strides in keeping our forests as forests, providing Americans with clean air, water, wildlife habitat, wood products and the other amenities we value so highly. But we won’t be celebrating a 50-year anniversary of these programs and their success if we don’t fix this wildfire funding problem.

So as the summer heats up, and Forest Service burns through their budget to fight wildfires, I hope members of both the House and Senate, no matter which side of the Mississippi they call home, consider supporting the Wildfire Disaster Funding Acts.

Tom Martin is CEO of the American Forest Foundation.