The legislation that would eliminate taking money from non-fire accounts to pay for the suppression of wildfires has been reintroduced by U.S. Senators John McCain (AZ), John Barrasso (WY), and Jeff Flake (AZ). The bill, called the FLAME Act Amendments of 2015, not only reduces fire borrowing, but also shortens the environmental review process for forest treatment projects and may increase timber harvesting on federal lands.
“Congress must fully fund our fire suppression needs, but to reduce wildfire costs over time we must also thin our fire-prone forests,” said Senator McCain. “There are similar proposals in Congress that support fire suppression spending, but they don’t as clearly guarantee funding for forest treatment programs, put an end to fire-borrowing, or promote the utility of private timber industry as this legislation does. We need to end the current practice of throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at wildfires year after year and begin to aggressively manage our forests.”
Rather than budgeting for wildfires using just 70 percent of a 10-year historic average of suppression expenditures as the Obama Administration proposed in its Fiscal Year 2015 budget request, this bill requires the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to budget for 100 percent of their suppression costs using the most accurate budget forecast model available (known as the “FLAME regression model”). The bill also would prohibit federal agencies from raiding non-wildfire accounts to pay for wildfires, a practice known as “fire-borrowing.”
While the Administration’s proposal would allow wildfire spending to automatically exceed statutory budget caps on disaster funding, this legislation would establish a limited process for accessing emergency funds in the event of a catastrophic wildfire, while investing aggressively in suppression and forest management programs. Finally, this bill would establish a streamlined environmental review process to expedite forest treatment projects across 7.5 million acres of federal land and promote the use of private industry under forest stewardship contracts.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and can be tracked at Congress.gov.
SUMMARY OF McCAIN-BARRASSO-FLAKE WILDFIRE BILL
- Prohibits Forest Service and the Interior Department from “fire-borrowing” from all accounts not connected to wildfire management.
- Requires FS/DOI to use the best available budget forecast model to plan its wildfire season and fully fund its suppression operations at 100 percent. Currently, FS uses a 10-year historic average of past wildfire spending to predict its future needs, which isn’t keeping pace with the increase in size and cost of wildfires.
- Establishes a narrowly tailored process to access emergency funds in the event of a catastrophic wildfire that exhausts suppression accounts, but also requires Appropriators to invest in hazardous fuels reduction projects and insect disease treatment projects.
- In order to access this emergency process for catastrophic wildfires, two things must happen: (1) 100 percent of the suppression needs must be funded; and (2) a number equal to 50 percent of the suppression costs must go to hazardous fuel reduction projects like those authorized under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003, the Tribal Forests Protection Act, and landscape scale forest restoration.
- Incentivizes more funding to the HFRA (which is authorized at $760 million a year) to prevent future wildfires near rural communities and bring down forest suppression costs over the long term.
- Requires Forest Service to treat 7.5 million acres of federal land designated as “Forest Management Emphasis Areas” within 15 years under an expedited environmental review process.