Years in the making - A solution for funding wildfire suppression

Posted by Dylan Kruse on March 22, 2018

The 2018 omnibus federal spending bill includes disaster funding for wildfires.

Photo by U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer

After a long and hard-fought process, we are thrilled to announce that Congress has finally come to agreement on a comprehensive solution to fix the problematic way wildfire suppression has been funded on federal lands. Unlike funding for other natural disasters, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Interior up until now had been required to plan and pay for wildfire response out of their annual budgets. Longer fire seasons, increased development in the wildland-urban interface, and millions of forest acres with saturated fuel loads have led to skyrocketing costs of wildfire response.

In the last several years, more than 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget has been consumed by wildfire suppression. To make matters worse, in severe fire years like 2017, the agencies exceeded their annual allocation and were forced to borrow from other programs to cover suppression costs, including some of the very programs that help restore forests and make them resilient to future wildfires. This situation was no longer tenable.

With the passage of the FY2018 Appropriations Bill, also known as the omnibus federal spending bill, beginning in 2020, sufficient funds will be allocated over eight years to a new disaster fund, securing more stable funding for fighting wildfires, and freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars for much needed management and restoration activities on federal lands.

Passing a fire funding fix has been a top priority for Sustainable Northwest, hundreds of organizations, and thousands of advocates across the nation for several years. We’ve drafted op-eds, held numerous meetings with legislators, participated in broad coalition advocacy efforts, and spent countless hours fighting for a solution to one of the most challenging problems facing federal forest management. We owe a tremendous amount of appreciation to the entire Oregon federal delegation and members of Congress across the country for coming to a strong bipartisan solution to the issue.

This action is also an endorsement for the vital work that partners across the nation are conducting to improve the health of our public lands, support rural economies, and preserve the legacy of these special landscapes for current and future generations. Businesses, environmentalists, community leaders, decision-makers, and public citizens continue to come together to prove we can find common ground through collaborative processes and programs to accomplish land management and sustainable natural resource use for diverse needs. A fire funding fix is an important change that will provide these groups and federal land management agencies with the structure and tools they need to get this work done. We have a long way to go to restore the health of our federal lands and begin to turn the tide of increasingly extreme wildfire seasons. This was a massive step in the right direction, acknowledging the time had come to find a better path forward, and working together was the only way to make that happen.

Sustainable Northwest sends our gratitude to the Oregon delegation for never letting this issue go ignored, to Congress for proving that bipartisan solutions to big problems are still within our grasp, and to countless voices and leaders across the country for standing up for the health and well-being of our federal lands and communities. We can’t wait to keep up the good work with you all.

Dylan Kruse is Sustainable Northwest’s Policy Director, leading state and federal legislative activity.