Lawmakers seek solutions as wildfires burn hole in firefighting budget

WASHINGTON – The 2017 wildfire season is already one of most expensive on record, with a $2.35 billion price tag burning through the Forest Service’s budget, lawmakers and Agriculture Department officials said Tuesday.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and five Western senators, including Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, called for an end to the ongoing underfunding of firefighting efforts that forces Forest Service to shift funds from other needed areas.

The problem of “fire borrowing” has been around for years, but Flake said Tuesday that the current combination of a particularly bad fire season and an “administration that seems anxious to finally move on this,” could finally lead to a solution this year.

Flake, who co-sponsored fire-borrowing legislation with Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and others in 2014, said he wants legislation that is permanent and fiscally sustainable.

“If we have a moving vehicle (legislation) that we can get this through on, we will do that,” Flake said Tuesday.

Besides funding, Flake said one problem for the Forest Service is burdensome environmental regulation under the National Environmental Policy Act that inhibits forest management.

NEPA isn’t currently a pressing concern in Arizona but “traditionally that’s been a problem,” Flake said. “And it will be again in the future, so we do need to streamline that process.”

Flake said forest thinning is a priority, especially in Arizona.

“We need to be thinning about 50,000 acres a year and we are not even close to that,” he said. “We should have 25 trees per acre, here we’re looking at 200, 300, 400 trees per acre.”

-Cronkite News video by Bailey Vogt

But environmental groups accused lawmakers of taking advantage of public fear of wildfires to skirt important regulations.

Randi Spivak, public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said lawmakers like Flake were unnecessarily avoiding the regulations, noting the potential for destructive practices without oversight.

Kirin Kennedy, the Sierra Club’s associate director of legislative and administrative policy for lands and wildlife, said that trying to prevent forest fires can actually lead to more intense fires once they start.

“What you end up with is overgrowth,” she said. “The Sierra Club believes that wildfires are naturally occurring, and that the forest service should do its job. Logging its way out of fires is not an actual solution.”

Spivak said that while some thinning is necessary in some areas bills currently being considered in Congress “are calling for mass logging,” and that with climate change contributing to the fires, “no trimming projects will stop them.”

Environmentalists have long fought the government over how to best manage forest fires, often to protect habitat for threatened species, but Flake said that approach can backfire.

“A lot of the environmentalists who were trying to protect habitat for spotted owl before the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fire sang a different tune afterwards when so much of that habitat was burned up,” he said. “There’s been more cooperation since that time but still, we’ve got to go in and take that forest back to where it was more naturally.”

But Spivak and other environmental groups worry that ecosystems will be harmed by thinning and post-fire clean up.

“The forest is starting to regenerate itself (after a fire),” Spivak said. “The burned area can be a perfect habitat for butterflies and insects and other animals, so you are really looking at destroying the ecology of the forest.”

Spivak said the main goal of legislation should be funding to create “defensible spaces around houses and businesses” and other areas to protect them from fire and head off loss of life and property.

“Of course, people’s families, their homes and businesses should be protected in the event of a fire,” Spivak said of the need to defensible spaces.

“Fire will always burn,” she said. “They will be top down and we need to stop trying to suppress them and learn to coexist with fire.”