Guest Opinion: Idaho needs Wildfire Disaster Funding Act


January 22, 2014 

Nobody lives in Idaho to breathe smoke.

We’re proud of our outdoor way of life, our working landscapes and the forests that cover nearly half our state. For many Idaho communities, forests are the backbone of the economy and provide the clean air, water and wildlife that make living here right for all of us.

But the acrid smoke that poured into many Idaho communities in each of the past two years was an unforgettable reminder that living near forests also means living near wildfires. In just two weeks last summer, four massive fires raced through dry fuels, burning more than 400,000 acres — 625 square miles — in south-central Idaho. In 2012, more than a million acres of national forest lands burned — nearly half in just three megafires.

Fire in Idaho’s forests is nothing new, of course. Our conifer woodlands evolved with wildfire, and fire plays a critical role in maintaining their health and resilience. However, the megafires of recent years are not normal. Experts say our forests today are too thick with young trees and brush from decades of suppressing smaller, natural fires, and our summers are hotter and drier. Megafires are the unsurprising result of this unnatural equation.

The results can be tragic, as it was last year in Idaho for the two firefighters who lost their lives and the dozens of people who lost homes.

The financial costs of fighting the fires of 2013 are still being calculated. But the numbers for 2012 are in, and they are staggering. All told, $211 million was spent on fire suppression in Idaho. Just 10 years ago, fire suppression amounted to 13 percent of the Forest Service budget; today it exceeds 40 percent.

When faced with a fire emergency, the Forest Service will spend money on firefighting even if costs exceed its planned fire suppression budget. The agency must make up the resulting shortfall by “borrowing” money from other land management needs. That diversion totaled more than $600 million in 2013. Some of that money came from the program that reduces hazardous fuels in the national forests in order to reduce risks from the next megafire. The agency’s already stretched budgets for recreation, wildlife and conservation have also been hit. Congress often repays the borrowed money — but only by cutting budgets in the following year. Unfortunately, these robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul federal firefighting shortfalls have occurred eight times since 2000. This is not a sustainable model for the lands we rely on.

But thankfully there are solutions, and we have national leadership on this issue right here in Idaho. In the waning days of 2013, Sen. Mike Crapo co-introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013, along with Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, his partner bridging the political aisle. Idaho Sen. Jim Risch recently joined as a co-sponsor. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson has also said he is ready to help in the House.

The bill would do two things: It would ensure that firefighters have the resources they need to be safe and ensure that forest restoration programs that help prevent megafires are maintained when budget shortfalls occur.

The bill accomplishes these things with a simple fix. In severe fire years, the agencies would be eligible to cover extraordinary firefighting costs as a fire disaster, just as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does for other major natural disasters. This would help put an end to cannibalizing land management programs.

We appreciate the work of our state leaders. Their efforts give us a real chance to safeguard the future of our forests.

Will Whelan is director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho.

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