House GOP effort would tap disaster fund for some wildfires

AP News
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Posted: Jul 08, 2015 4:14 PM
House GOP effort would tap disaster fund for some wildfires

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans are proposing that some forest fires be treated like federal disasters, an attempt to win broader support for legislation that targets overgrown national forest lands.

The legislation focuses on speeding up timber harvests and the removal of underbrush the Forest Service deems necessary to improving the health of a forest. Some Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups have been critical of the bill because they say it would erode key environmental safeguards.

With a House vote expected this week, GOP lawmakers added the federal disaster language to the bill, something the Obama administration first proposed early last year, but with some key differences.

Under current policy, the agencies fighting wildfires divert money toward firefighting from other programs during particularly busy years. But that practice delays the very efforts designed to prevent fires in the first place, such as the thinning of dead trees and the removal of thick underbrush. Supporters say that letting federal agencies tap into a disaster fund will prevent such borrowing and lessen the risk of catastrophic forest fires in the coming years.

This year's fire season appears to be shaping up as a busy one, adding some urgency to tackling the funding problem. A report Monday from the National Interagency Fire Center showed 51 active large fires across 10 states, with more than half taking place in Alaska and Washington.

"My colleagues on both sides of the aisle agree that current efforts to combat the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires are failing our communities. This package charts a new course," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Bishop said the bill should garner broad support. But Robert Bonnie, who oversees natural resource issues at the Agriculture Department, which houses the Forest Service, indicated the GOP has more work to do to win over the administration.

He described the bill as a step forward but said the changes don't go far enough to address financial challenges that the Forest Service faces as more and more of its budget is eaten up by fighting forest fires.

The White House issued a statement Wednesday afternoon strongly objecting to the bill, which it said "falls short of fixing the fire budget problem" and undermines public trust in forest management projects.

One of the biggest differences between what House Republicans are backing and what the administration proposed is when federal agencies could tap into a disaster account.

The government estimates its firefighting needs based on the average costs of the 10 previous years. The administration supports funding the agencies at 70 percent of the 10-year average and using the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster fund to cover the cost of fighting other fires. The certainty of that funding will allow federal agencies to director more resources toward treating forests before fires occur.

Bonnie said fires such as the "Rim Fire" in California two years ago should be treated as federal disasters regardless of when they occur. That fire scorched 400 square miles and cost $125 million to fight.

"You can give the Forest Service new authority, but unless you solve the budget problem, the Forest Service lacks the resources to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration," Bonnie said.

House Republicans would let the agencies tap into a disaster fund only after they've exhausted that year's firefighting budget, and the extra money could only be used for putting out fires. The money would also be part of a separate account within FEMA so that it wouldn't take money from recovery efforts for hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters.

And while the administration wants to put more money into treating forests before fires occur, the House bill is focused on lowering regulatory hurdles to speed timbering projects. Also, House Republicans want to require that groups suing the federal government over a thinning project buy an insurance bond in the event they lose. That way, the federal government could recoup the expense of defending itself in court. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said the provision will be a "poison pill" for many Democratic lawmakers.

Bonnie cited the bonding requirement as one of the most troubling provisions in the bill. Still, he sought to maintain an environment where the two sides could potentially iron out some of their differences.

"We want to work with them," Bonnie said. "The current design of those provisions we think can be a lot better."