Bend Bulletin: Editorial: The temporary fix in the temporary fix

October 2, 2015
In The News

Editorial: The temporary fix in the temporary fix

The bar is set low for Congress when people celebrate that it managed to avoid a government shutdown. But in the legislation to keep the government running through Dec. 11, there was something vital for the West: $700 million in emergency funding to help with this year’s wildfire season costs.

“Without emergency funding, the Forest Service and other agencies would be forced to sustain massive cuts to operations that Oregonians rely on, from campground maintenance, to timber harvests, to the very thinning and fuel reduction programs that help prevent these out-of-control wildfires,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

The $700 million is needed. What Congress really needs to do, though, is make progress on a permanent fix for wildfire funding. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Interior and the Office of Management and Budget recently sent a joint letter to Congress urging it to change the way government pays for wildfire.

Most fires — about 98 percent of them — can be adequately suppressed with what federal agencies budget every year. But it’s the remaining catastrophic fires that eat up 30 percent or more of the fire-suppression budget.

The solution is to treat those fires as the natural disasters they are. Pay for them like other natural disasters. There’s really not much debate about that. But there is debate about how exactly that should work.

There is a bill backed by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, that passed the House. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Merkley have been fighting for a different bill. Federal agencies say they favor the Wyden bill, because it gives them more discretion rather than reallocating funds. Fire seasons are, on average, 78 days longer than they were in 1970, according to the Department of Agriculture. Twice as many acres burn as did 30 years ago. Those trends may well continue. That means more and more of the very money that helps reduce wildfires will be used just to suppress wildfire. This year, the Forest Service’s budget hit a record of 52 percent used to fight wildfire. The share of the Department of Interior’s budget for preparedness and suppression is now 76 percent.

Congress, stop the cycle. Find a funding compromise.