GM 14-071

Wildland Fire Suppression Funding: Congress and the Administration Propose Changes

As firefighting seasons lengthen and wildfires increase in magnitude and intensity, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Donovan, Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Jewell, Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Vilsack and a bipartisan, bicameral group of Members of Congress are proposing a new way to pay for fighting certain large, catastrophic fires. This proposal is encapsulated in the President’s FY 2015 request for DOI and USDA and in legislation (HR 3992 and S 1875), sponsored by Representative Simpson (R-ID) and Senator Wyden (D-OR), as well as in an amendment offered in the House markup of the FY 2015 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations bill (HR 5171). Below in summary we explain the nature of the problem, the proposals to remedy it, why it is important to Indian Country and what the likelihood is that such a change will be enacted.

Where the funding is located and what it does. Wildland Fire Management is a cross cutting, five agency-wide program that is funded through the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations bill. The program provides funding for: fire preparedness; fire suppression operations; fire science and research; emergency rehabilitation; hazardous fuels management activities; and rural fire assistance for DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs; Bureau of Land Management; National Park Service; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and USDA’s Forest Service.

What the problem is. Over the years, firefighting seasons have been lengthening and wildfires have been increasing in magnitude and intensity. As the Administration explains “Between 1980 and 2011, the average annual number of fires on Federal land more than doubled, and the total area burned annually tripled.” Of these wildfires, a small portion (one percent), are so catastrophic that they consume 30 percent of the fire suppression portion of the Wildland Fire Management budget each year. Because appropriations have not increased at a similar rate, fire suppression is consuming an ever growing portion of the Wildland Fire Management budget and crowding out funding for preventative land management and hazardous fuel reduction activities which would actually reduce the occurrence of these large, catastrophic fires in the first place.

Why this happens. The way this process works is: Congress appropriates a certain amount for both Wildland Fire Management and the FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Fund but provides the five bureaus and services the flexibility to transfer funds within those accounts to fire suppression if the funding amount for fire suppression ends up being insufficient. Because the funding amount for suppression operations is almost always insufficient, funding is taken away from these other key areas. Congress will then in the next appropriations bill allow that “such funds are also available for repayments of advances to other appropriation accounts from which funds were previously transferred” basically to “reimburse” these accounts for the amounts “borrowed” from them. The problem with this approach is that these accounts are then “borrowed” from again as the cycle repeats itself and important prevention and rehabilitations projects are delayed. This practice has become so common that it now has its own name: “fire borrowing.” The reason Congress underfunds suppression operations is that as costs for suppression continue to increase, the prospect of fully funding this activity becomes increasingly expensive—it would consume an ever larger portion of the federal discretionary budget every year.

What the proposal is. The Administration and certain Members of Congress are proposing a legislative fix which would acknowledge up front that every year there will be some wildfires (the estimated one percent) that are so large, so catastrophic that they should qualify as disasters and that the funding for suppression operations for these fires should be classified differently. The legislation proposes to classify any Wildland Fire suppression appropriations in excess of 70 percent of the 10-year average of Wildland Fire suppression costs as disaster funding. Proponents of this fix argue that this will allow for the Wildland Fire Management budget to provide a stable source of funding for fire preparedness; ordinary fire suppression operations; fire science and research; emergency rehabilitation; hazardous fuels management activities; and rural fire assistance while leaving the funding for true disasters to be paid for as such, and thus not count against the Appropriations Committees funding allocations.

Why this is important to Indian Country. 1) The BIA is one of the five bureaus and agencies which receives a portion of Wildland Fire Management budget; 2) oftentimes public lands are adjacent to tribal lands so an out-of-control fire on public lands can easily spread to tribal lands; and 3) watersheds damaged by fire on public lands may be the very same watersheds on which tribes rely.

Outlook. HR 3992 has 131 cosponsors and S 1875 has 18 cosponsors. House Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee Ranking Member Moran (D-VA) offered similar language as an amendment to House’s FY 2015 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations bill (HR 5171), stating “[Wildland] fire [suppression] is going to burn a hole in the Interior-Environment budget. It should be classified as emergency funding.” Committee Members concurred with the intent of his amendment but urged that it be brought up in conference with the Senate or as part of an Omnibus appropriations package. The outlook for the FY 2015 appropriations process is uncertain at best and we note that this language has not been included in the House Republicans’ recently released Continuing Resolution; however, there is strong bipartisan support for this measure and it is still possible that it could be included in an FY 2015 Omnibus appropriations bill enacted during the lame duck session of Congress which occurs after the November elections. We will continue to report on this matter as developments occur.

Please let us know if we may provide additional information regarding the proposed changes to the funding for Wildland Fire suppression.