Fire funding fix comes with environmental rollbacks

Congress accomplished something unprecedented last week: They passed a bipartisan solution to a knotty budget issue that has hobbled the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to do restoration and fire-prevention work in Western forests. The $1.3 trillion federal spending package included a long-sought funding fix for wildfire response. Starting in 2020, the Forest Service will be able to access over $2 billion a year outside of its regular fire suppression budget.

As recently as 1995, the Forest Service spent only 16 percent of its budget on fire. In 2017, though, wildfire suppression costs ate up more than half the agency’s budget, exceeding $2 billion. Because its fire budget rarely matched the true costs of increasingly explosive fire seasons, the agency was then forced to raid other programs to pay for firefighting. Such “fire borrowing” robbed funding from watershed restoration projects, invasive species programs and initiatives to reduce fire risk.

The fix in the spending bill should end, or at least greatly reduce, fire borrowing. But some conservation groups question whether the fix was worth the compromises included in the bill, which could undermine environmental protections for forests and wildlife. The bill includes two riders that concern them.

The first will allow logging projects less than 3,000 acres in size to move forward with little environmental review, so long as the goal of those projects is to reduce heavy fuel loads that increase fire risk.

A second provision could delay habitat protections for newly listed threatened and endangered species. It targets a 2015 ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which determined that the Forest Service is obligated to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when new species are listed to evaluate whether its management plans might harm the species.

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