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Budget deal includes wildfire disaster fund to end borrowing

WASHINGTON — A spending bill slated for a vote in Congress includes a bipartisan plan to create a wildfire disaster fund to help combat increasingly severe wildfires that have devastated the West in recent years.

The bill sets aside more than $20 billion over 10 years to allow the Forest Service and other federal agencies end a practice of raiding non-fire-related accounts to pay for wildfire costs, which approached $3 billion last year.

Western lawmakers have long complained that the current funding mechanism — tied to a 10-year average for wildfires — makes budgeting difficult, even as fires burn longer and hotter each year.

The new plan sets aside $2 billion per year — outside the regular budget — so officials don't have to tap money meant for prevention programs to fight wildfires.

"Common sense has finally prevailed when it comes to how the Forest Service pays to fight record-breaking forest fires that devastate homes and communities in Oregon and the West," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who helped broker the compromise with Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. GOP Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington also played key roles, along with other lawmakers from both parties.

The Western lawmakers have been fighting for years to end "fire borrowing," a practice they say devastates rational budgeting for the Forest Service and other agencies.

"This long-overdue, bipartisan solution to the madness of 'fire borrowing' will at last treat these infernos like the natural disasters they are, with the benefit that millions of dollars will now be liberated each year for essential wildfire prevention," Wyden said in a statement.

The wildfire deal "puts an end to fire-borrowing and is a start to giving the Forest Service the predictable resources they need to reduce hazardous fuels" such as small trees and underbrush that cause and exacerbate wildfires, Cantwell said.

"This funding boost will allow the Forest Service to prioritize work in areas closest to communities, in order to save lives and reduce the risk of property damage, while still protecting essential public lands and existing environmental laws," said Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The measure establishes a contingency account through 2027, with annual deposits starting at $2.1 billion and increasing to $2.9 billion. Money from the account would only be used after funds from usual firefighting accounts are exhausted.

Wildfires have burned across dried-out Western forests and grassland in recent years, causing billions of dollars in damage in California, Oregon and other states. The Forest Service and Interior Department spent more than $2.7 billion last year fighting fires — the most expensive wildfire season on record.

The budget deal includes $100 million for fire prevention projects and recreation programs and enables utilities to work with the Forest Service to prevent trees from touching power lines and starting wildfires.

Simpson, who chairs an Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, called the wildfire fund one of the most significant pieces of legislation he has worked on in Congress. The concept is simple, he said: Treat catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters.

"Fire borrowing was intended to be an extraordinary measure, but as fire seasons have grown more destructive it has become common practice — and has created a devastating cycle that prevents agencies from doing needed hazardous fuels removal or timber harvests, leading to worse fires," he said.

Confederated Tribes develop Hollering Place in Empire

COOS BAY — Last Thursday the Tribal Council of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians signed into an agreement with the city of Coos Bay's Urban Renewal Agency to develop a piece of land on the bay in Empire.

Concept layout design for of Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians new Hollering Place. Art contributed by Confederated Tribes.

Located at the junction of Newmark and Cape Arago Highway at the end of the Empire District, the Hollering Place Cultural/Visitor Center will be coming to the bay within the next five years.

Along with the cultural center the tribe will also be putting in retail shops, a possible restaurant, and a small lodging area for visitors.

“We hope that this development will inspire more development in the Empire area, creating a hub of commercial and community activity,” Confederated Tribes Chairman Mark Ingersoll said.

The Urban Renewal Agency has been working with the tribe for several years to bring this development to Empire.

A sea wall that will reinforce the existing shore line is the first priority of the Tribe. The city is also interested in working with the Tribe to develop a seawall in the surrounding area.

“We’re already coordinating with them. We have our engineering division that’s coordinating on a sea wall issue. When they build their erosion control wall we want to coordinate our efforts, because we need a sea wall that’s north of the property. We're hoping to get the same consultant and save some money,” City Manager Rodger Craddock said.

After the sea wall is developed contractors will begin developing the lower areas of the property. The first thing the tribe would like to do is to begin building the visitors center.

The five-year plan has been in the works with the Urban Renewal Agency for around twelve years now, going through many changes along the way. According to the Tribe the negotiations for the most recent agreement began back in 2014.

“We began this process with the city and put in a bid to do the project. The project got kind of large in scale, and as we started to develop the project we realized that the lower lots actually had to be deeded back to the city by the state. That slowed us down, but it actually gave us some time to slow down and look at the scale of the project,” CEO of the Tribal Government Alexis Barry said.

Concept art for the Hollering Place Cultural and Visitor center being developed by the Confederated Tribes of of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. Art Contributed by Confederated Tribes. 

Originally the tribe planned to build a large hotel complex on the property, but because of earthquake and tsunami risks they decided to scale back the project.

“The project got quite expensive. We were looking at like a $20 million hotel down there. Pulling it back a little bit and starting to work on these tidal issues we decided to scale it back,” Barry said.

The Confederated Tribes have a lot of history down where the Hollering Place will be. There have been native peoples using that area to launch boats throughout history. It was a very large village site centuries ago.

“The Hollering Place is one of the oldest settlements and one of the largest settlements of tribal members in the area. The Hollering Place is a place where people would holler to get a canoe, that’s where it got its name,” Barry said.

Total cost for the project has not yet been determined, as approval contracts with the Urban Renewal Agency were only signed last week. However Barry believes the cost will for the visitors center will be around $4 million.

“We have such a variety of projects down there it would be really hard to cost that out at this time. We’re talking about a restaurant down there, and who knows what that’ll cost at this point,” Barry said.

As plans develop the Tribe and the city hope that the community will become involved in the process.

“We are excited to see the potential development of this area, which is an important place to the Tribe, both now and in the past.” Barry said.

Sea lions gobbling fragile fish in US Northwest survival war

NEWPORT — The 700-pound sea lion blinked in the sun, sniffed the sea air and then lazily shifted to the edge of the truck bed and plopped onto the beach below.

Freed from the cage that carried him to the ocean, the massive marine mammal shuffled into the surf, looked left, looked right and then began swimming north as a collective groan went up from wildlife officials who watched from the shore.

After two days spent trapping and relocating the animal designated #U253, he was headed back to where he started — an Oregon river 130 miles from the Pacific Ocean that's become an all-you-can-eat fish buffet for hungry sea lions.

"I think he's saying, 'Ah, crap! I've got to swim all the way back?'" said Bryan Wright, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife scientist.

It's a frustrating dance between California sea lions and Oregon wildlife managers that's become all too familiar in recent months. The state is trying to evict dozens of the federally protected animals from an inland river where they feast on salmon and steelhead that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The bizarre survival war has intensified recently as the sea lion population rebounds and fish populations decline in the Pacific Northwest.

The sea lions breed each summer off Southern California and northern Mexico, then the males cruise up the Pacific Coast to forage. Hunted for their thick fur, the mammals' numbers dropped dramatically but have rebounded from 30,000 in the late 1960s to about 300,000 today due to the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

With their numbers growing, the dog-faced pinnipeds are venturing ever farther inland on the watery highways of the Columbia River and its tributaries in Oregon and Washington — and their appetite is having disastrous consequences, scientists say.

In Oregon, the sea lions are intercepting protected fish on their way to spawning grounds above Willamette Falls, a horseshoe-shaped waterfall about 25 miles south of Portland. Last winter, a record-low 512 wild winter steelhead completed the journey, said Shaun Clements, the state wildlife agency's senior policy adviser.

Less than 30 years ago, that number was more than 15,000, according to state numbers.

"We're estimating that there's a 90 percent probability that one of the populations in the Willamette River could go extinct if sea lion predation continues unchecked," he said. "Of all the adults that are returning to the falls here, a quarter of them are getting eaten."

Clements estimates the sea lions also are eating about 9 percent of the spring chinook salmon, a species prized by Native American tribes still allowed to fish for them.

Oregon wildlife managers say sea lions are beginning to move into even smaller tributaries where they had never been seen before and where some of the healthiest stocks of the threatened fish exist. The mammals also have been spotted in small rivers in Washington state that are home to fragile fish populations.

California sea lions are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, but killing them requires special authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was changed to address the issue of fish predation.

Biologists this spring started trapping the sea lions in the Willamette River and releasing them at the coast. They also have applied with the federal government to kill the worst offenders to protect the fish runs.

Native tribes, which have fished for salmon and steelhead for generations, support limited sea lion kills because of the cultural value of the fish, said Doug Hatch, a senior fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

"You're pitting this protected population that has been fully recovered against these Endangered Species Act-listed fish," Hatch said. "We think it's an easy choice."

If U.S. officials grant the request, the trap-and-kill program would expand a similar and highly controversial effort on another major Pacific Northwest river. Oregon and Washington wildlife managers are allowed to kill up to 93 sea lions trapped each year at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River under certain conditions.

In the past decade, the agency has removed 190 sea lions there. Of those, 168 were euthanized, seven died in accidents during trapping and 15 were placed in captivity, according to state data.

The Humane Society of the United States sued over the trap-and-kill program and may sue again if it's allowed on the Willamette River, said Sharon Young, the organization's field director for marine wildlife.

The animals are not the only problem facing wild winter steelhead and chinook salmon, she said.

Hydroelectric dams that block rivers, agricultural runoff, damage to spawning grounds and competition with hatchery-bred fish have all hurt the native species, Young said. And new sea lions will take the place of those that are killed, she added.

"It's easier to say, 'If I kill that sea lion, at least I keep him from eating that fish.' But if you don't deal with the cause of the problem, you're not going to help the fish," she said. "It's like a treadmill of death. You kill one, and another one will come."

While Oregon awaits word on the sea lions' fate, wildlife managers are trapping them and hauling them to the ocean, which can sometimes seem futile.

Five days after his 2 ½-hour drive to the Oregon coast, #U253 was back at Willamette Falls, hungry for more fish.

Lawmakers release huge budget; big military, domestic boosts

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders finalized a sweeping $1.3 trillion budget bill Wednesday that substantially boosts military and domestic spending but leaves behind young immigrant "Dreamers," deprives President Donald Trump some of his border wall money and takes only incremental steps to address gun violence.

As negotiators stumbled toward an end-of-the-week deadline to fund the government or face a federal shutdown, House Speaker Paul Ryan dashed to the White House amid concerns Trump's support was wavering. The White House later said the president backed the legislation, even as some conservative Republicans balked at the size of the spending increases and the rush to pass the bill.

Talks continued into Wednesday evening before the 2,232-page text was finally released.

"No bill of this size is perfect," Ryan said. "But this legislation addresses important priorities and makes us stronger at home and abroad."

Leaders still hoped to start voting as soon as today. A stopgap measure may be needed to ensure federal offices aren't hit with a partial shutdown at midnight Friday when funding for the government expires.

Negotiators have been working for days — and nights — on details of the bill, which is widely viewed as the last major piece of legislation likely to move through Congress in this election year. Lawmakers in both parties sought to attach their top priorities.

Two of the biggest remaining issues had been border wall funds and a legislative response to gun violence after the clamor for action following recent school shootings, including the one in Parkland, Florida.

On guns, leaders agreed to tuck in bipartisan provisions to bolster school safety funds and improve compliance with the criminal background check system for firearm purchases. The bill states that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can do research on gun violence, though not advocacy, an idea Democrats pushed.

But there was no resolution for Dreamers, the young immigrants who have been living in the United States illegally since childhood, but whose deportation protections are being challenged in court after Trump tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Democrats temporarily shut down the government earlier this year as they fought for that protection. But the issue only rose to a discussion item when Trump made a late-hour push for a deal in exchange for $25 billion in border wall funds.

Instead, Trump is now poised to win $1.6 billion for barriers along the border, but none of it for the new prototypes he recently visited in California. Less than half the nearly 95 miles of border construction, including levees along the Rio Grande in Texas, would be for new barriers, with the rest for repair of existing segments.

In one win for immigrant advocates, negotiators rejected Trump's plans to hire hundreds of new Border Patrol and immigration enforcement agents.

"We are disappointed that we did not reach agreement on Dreamer protections that were worthy of these patriotic young people," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The emerging plan removes a much-debated earmark protecting money for a rail tunnel under the Hudson River. The item was a top priority of Trump's most powerful Democratic rival, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, but Trump vowed to veto the bill over the earmark. Under the legislation, the project would remain eligible for funding, however, and a Schumer aide said it was likely to win well more than half of the $900 million sought for the project this year.

The core purpose of the bill is to increase spending for military and domestic programs that have been sharply squeezed under a 2011 agreement that was supposed to cap spending. It gives Trump a huge budget increase for the military, while Democrats scored wins on infrastructure and other domestic programs that they failed to get under President Barack Obama.

Most essential was support from Trump, who has been known to threaten to veto legislation even when his team is involved in the negotiations.

Word of Trump's discontent sent Ryan to the White House, where he was invited to a face-to-face with the president, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the phone.

White House aides said the president's support was never in doubt, but one senior White House official said the president was concerned that details of the package weren't being presented as well as they could be, both to members of Congress and the public.

The group discussed how they could better sell the package, said the official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the private conversation.

"The president and the leaders discussed their support for the bill," said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, adding that it would fund Trump priorities such as wall construction, add money to combat the opioid crisis and provide new infrastructure spending.

Both parties touted $4.6 billion in total funding to fight the nation's opioid addiction epidemic, a $3 billion increase. More than $2 billion would go to strengthen school safety through grants for training, security measures and treatment for the mentally ill. Medical research at the National Institutes of Health, a longstanding bipartisan priority, would receive a record $3 billion increase to $37 billion. Funding was also included for election security ahead of the 2018 midterms.