Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has assured House appropriators that he would press the White House for more funding and flexibility to address wildfires across the nation as lawmakers from both parties expressed dismay at proposed budget cuts to the U.S. Forest Service.
President Donald Trump’s proposal for fiscal 2018 released on Tuesday suggests cutting the Forest Service’s budget to $5.2 billion from the $5.6 billion allocated in the fiscal 2017 omnibus. Trump’s budget would direct $2.5 billion of that toward the Forest Service’s wildland fire management budget, compared to the $3.2 billion in the omnibus.
At a hearing to examine Trump’s budget proposal for the Forest Service on Thursday, Rep. Ken Calvert, the chairman of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, who recalled the wildfires that have in recent years ravaged his state of California, told Perdue to make forest management a priority. Calvert said the protracted drought that only recently ended in California left the state with nearly 100 million dead or dying trees that could lead to more fires if the agency does not quickly clear them.
The budget “is a recipe for more forest fires,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, told reporters shortly after the hearing.
Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, the panel’s ranking Democrat, warned at the hearing that if cuts to the Forest Service’s budget continue, states would be forced to fill the resulting “void.”
“I’m disappointed that the administration has failed to pursue any proposals to reform the way we fund wildfire costs,” McCollum said. “The cost associated with fighting wild land fires continues to rise, and this budget illustrates how other important programs suffer when funding is diverted into fighting wildfires.”
At the hearing, Perdue acknowledged that fighting wildfires is a “huge issue” and said he would “advocate very strongly” to the Trump administration to provide adequate money to prevent and control such fires.
“I look forward to working with this committee … to see if we can get that across the goal line,” Perdue said. “We want to be a good neighbor within the culture of the communities within which the U.S. Forest Service finds itself.”
Congress has struggled to come to a consensus on how the federal government should budget for forest fires. Some lawmakers have pushed to end the Forest Service’s so-called fire borrowing, which happens when the agency takes money from other programs under its authority when it runs out of appropriated fire suppression money. As forest fires start earlier in the year, get bigger and last longer, lawmakers see it as crucial for the federal government to provide sufficient funds without hurting other land management programs.
Rep. Mike Simpson said that because the Forest Service spends more than half of its budget on fighting fires, little else is left for forest maintenance.
“Fire borrowing has gotten out of hand,” the Idaho Republican said, addressing Perdue. “We need your help to make leadership understand the importance of addressing this issue.”
The 2017 omnibus includes $407 million in emergency funds that appropriators said will be used in the event of a “catastrophic” fire season.
Bipartisan legislation Simpson introduced in the last Congress would end fire borrowing and require the Forest Service to turn to Congress when it needs emergency funds rather than take away from other land management programs like forest thinning and timber removal, which are considered helpful in preventing fires.
That bill did not get a vote on the house floor. But McCollum on Thursday said she hoped Simpson would reintroduce the bill, and asked Perdue to work with lawmakers to find a solution that can fund wildfire fighting in a “sustainable” way.
“If we continue on the path of underfunding programs to manage firefighting, we jeopardize the health and longevity of America’s national forests,” she said. “I believe this budget is grossly inefficient; it disregards the jobs and environmental benefits the national forests provide.”