Congress Fixed A Huge Problem With Wildfire Spending. So Why Can We Expect More Massive Fires?

Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS

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Tim Pearce Energy Reporter
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The spending bill President Donald Trump signed Friday stops the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) from raiding management programs to fund fire-fighting but fails to deal with a deeper problem of overall fire suppression spending.

Politicians and agency officials have long sought a fix to “fire borrowing,” a practice where the USFS temporarily diverts funds from forest and other management programs toward fire suppression. The spending bill continues a $1.4 billion fund dedicated to fighting wildfires, as well as gives agencies access to billions more in disaster funding, ultimately treating wildfires as other natural disasters, The Washington Post reports.

Funding is just half of the issue, however. Federal agencies, the USFS in particular, are often unable to complete management projects that would clear forests of dense brush or dead and dying trees, leaving fuel to pile up until it’s ignited.

“The fire-funding fix slightly improves the Forest Service’s flexibility, but the bill is not as aggressive as it should have been in restoring the health of our nation’s forests. The Democrats and the litigation activists who back them simply dropped the ball,” GOP Rep. Rob Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, told WaPo.

Environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act often hamper federal attempts to thin forests through logging projects and controlled burns. Environmental groups file lawsuits to stop such attempts, tying up agency action in court cases that last years, according to the free-market think tank Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).

The spending bill loosens regulations under certain situations, such as a provision allowing the USFS to clear brush on up to 3,000 acres of land during dry years. Managing 3,000 acres, or slightly more than 4.5 square miles, does not stretch far in forests that are much larger, however.

PERC Director of Publications and researcher Shawn Reagan predicted on Twitter the “fire borrowing” fix would do little to help lessen the impact of wildfires or cut down on wildfire suppression spending, which has been constantly rising for decades.

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