COLUMN: We must utilize every tool available to prevent wildfires
Wildfires have already had a devastating impact on Colorado and the Third District this year, destroying tens of thousands of acres and hundreds of homes. While everybody acknowledges that the frequency and severity of wildfires have increased over the past decade, many in Washington still have been reluctant to make meaningful policy changes to how we maintain forests.
Since first coming to Washington, I have worked on the House Committee on Natural Resources to change the way we approach forest health and wildfire prevention away from the status quo that has left our forests overgrown, full of dead timber and unnaturally dense undergrowth.
The answer to reducing the frequency and severity of wildfire in the Western U.S. is multifaceted, but the crux of the problem is in the federal government's response to these disasters and its overall forest management strategy.
Up until now, rather than proactively managing federal forests, the U.S. Forest Service's (USFS) priority has been on fire suppression. This is largely the result of the way in which the federal government treats wildfires from a budgetary perspective. In recent years, USFS's spending on fire suppression has gone from 15 percent of its overall budget, to a whopping 55 percent. In 2017, the USFS spent over $2 billion on wildfire suppression, making 2017 the most expensive year on record. While the USFS continues neglect forest health to focus on fighting fires, nearly 60 million acres of forest are now at high risk of going up in flames.
By spending more and more of its budget annually on suppression, the USFS has been forced to divert funds from land management accounts. This practice, otherwise known as "fire borrowing," has prevented the USFS from carrying out important forest management activities, resulting in overgrown forests where trees compete for limited water and nutrients, leaving them weak and more susceptible to insect and disease infestation. All the while, dead material and unnaturally thick undergrowth has built up, creating a fuel load that burns unnaturally hot and fast when ignited.
To reverse this trend, we must stop being reactive to wildfires and focus greater resources on proactive forest management. Congress included important wildfire funding reforms in the 2018 Omnibus Bill that will allow the USFS to stop fire-borrowing and use more of its budget on active forest management. Under the new structure, $2.25 billion in new budget authority will be available to the USFS and the Department of the Interior (DOI) for wildfire response beginning in 2020.
This means that if firefighting costs exceed $1.01 billion in any given year, the USFS and DOI will no longer need to borrow from critical land management accounts to fight catastrophic fires. Instead, they will be able to tap into the new budget authority, similar to how other natural disasters are treated. The money available will increase by $100 million each year until 2027.
Bringing an end to fire-borrowing is a critical if we are to restore the health of federal forests and better prevent future catastrophic wildfires. However, that is just one piece of the puzzle. It is also important that our federal land management agencies implement fuels reduction methods that efficiently eliminate dead and downed timber and unnaturally dense growth that are known to spark wildfires. This can be done in a variety of ways, whether it be through coordination between the federal government and state to identify priority hazardous fuels reduction projects, private-public partnerships or Good Neighbor Agreements.
When we look for solutions to solve any problem facing our lands, we must always consider input from the affected communities and those who have a boots-on-the-ground view of the situation. For that reason, I pushed a provision in the Resilient Federal Forests Act, which passed the House last year, to allow governors to work with impacted county governments and Native American tribes to designate high-risk areas and develop emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects for these endangered areas.
Ranchers across the West also play a key role in the fight against wildfires. When ranchers pay a fee to the Department of Interior to allow their livestock to graze on the public land that intersects with their private rangeland, they create a public-private partnership that is mutually beneficial for the ranchers and land management agencies. When done properly, livestock grazing helps to decrease the overgrowth of foliage on public lands that, when ignited, can lead to fast moving fires.
Good Neighbor Agreements are also an important tool that allows the federal government to utilize the resources and expertise of state and local governments when it comes to managing the forests in their areas. Good Neighbor Agreements allow the Department of the Interior to enter into cooperative agreements with states and territories to perform a variety of management activities, like treatments for insect and disease infested trees and reduce hazardous fuels, and also projects to improve the watershed health. Good Neighbor Agreements have proven to be successful, so much so, that the authority was expanded under the 2018 Omnibus to include reconstruction, repair and restoration of Forest System roads.
Wildfires are naturally occurring and will forever be a part of life in the West. Fixing the way the federal government funds wildfire suppression and using all of the tools available to coordinate active forest management at the federal, state and local levels will vastly improve forest health and help prevent the frequency and severity of wildfires in the future.