Congress accomplished something unprecedented last month: They passed a bipartisan solution to a knotty budget issue that has hobbled the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to do restoration and fire-prevention work in Western forests.
The $1.3 trillion federal spending package, signed into law by President Donald Trump, included a long-sought funding fix for wildfire response. Starting in 2020, the Forest Service will be able to access over $2 billion a year outside of its regular fire suppression budget.
As recently as 1995, the Forest Service spent only 16 percent of its budget on fire. In 2017, though, wildfire suppression costs ate up more than half the agency’s budget, exceeding $2 billion. Because its fire budget rarely matched the costs of increasingly explosive fire seasons, the agency then raided other programs to pay for firefighting. Such “fire borrowing” took funding from watershed restoration projects, invasive species programs and initiatives to reduce fire risk.
The fix in the spending bill should end or greatly reduce fire borrowing. However, roughly half the Forest Service’s annual budget will still be dedicated to fire suppression. Where the fix improves the situation is in allowing the agency to pull money from an emergency disaster fund when costs exceed its fire budget, as they are expected to do in coming years.
Many environmentalists celebrated the achievement. “It is a really great fix,” says Cecilia Clavet, a senior policy advisor for the Nature Conservancy. “You are talking about stabilizing the Forest Service budget so that they can do the activities that they should be focused on.” Clavet hopes Congress and the agency respond by reinvesting in fire prevention and restoration projects.
But other conservation groups question whether the fix was worth the compromises included in the bill, which could undermine environmental protections for forests and wildlife. The bill includes two riders that concern them. The first will allow logging projects less than 3,000 acres in size to move forward with little environmental review, so long as the goal of those projects is to reduce heavy fuel loads that increase fire risk. Previous legislation has authorized such exemptions on other grounds, for instance for projects in diseased and insect-infested forest stands. Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild, says such loopholes have made some old-growth stands in Oregon vulnerable to cutting.
“It’s just a green light for abuse,” argues Brett Hartl, governmental affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Three thousand here, 3,000 there. Soon you are talking a lot of acres.”
A second provision could delay habitat protections for newly listed threatened and endangered species. It targets a 2015 ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which determined that the Forest Service is obligated to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when new species are listed to evaluate whether its management plans might harm the species. The case focused on the agency’s failure to revisit how its forest plans could impact critical habitat for the Canada lynx. The forest plans are management blueprints for large landscapes, and the rider to the fire fix allows the agency to skip this big picture review for newly listed species. Such reviews can now be delayed until revisions of forest plans, which happen every 15 years at best.
The agency will still have to consider the effects of logging projects proposed within a species’ habitat case-by-case. But the change means it could approve a number of small projects without considering their cumulative impact. Hartl calls it a potential “death by a thousand cuts,” particularly for wide-ranging species like the lynx. Each new project could whittle away their habitat.
Susan Jane Brown, director of the Western Environmental Law Center’s wild lands program, says it’s unfortunate that concessions to the timber industry made it into the bill. But on balance, she’s glad the fix is in. “(I’ve) seen other proposals that could have been a lot worse.”
Peter Nelson, director of federal lands at Defenders of Wildlife, supports the fix, but concedes that it does feel “like one step forward and one step back.”
Hartl, on the other hand, simply thinks the environment got shorted. “I never think it is a good deal when the Democrats get money and Republicans get to change the underlying environmental laws,” he says. “Because one thing is temporary and one thing is not.”
This article was published first on hcn.org.