The oddest thing happened last week in Washington, D.C., as members of Congress (and then President Donald Trump) rushed to keep the government open so that they could blow out of town on spring break:
The spending bill that Congress passed (and which Trump then signed, but not without some veto bluster) included a bipartisan plan that finally takes a big step toward ending the practice known as "fire borrowing."
Frequent readers of this page know all about fire borrowing: In recent years, the agencies in charge of battling blazes on federal land (the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service) have been forced to raid non-fire-related accounts just to cover firefighting costs.
The current funding mechanism is tied to a 10-year average for wildfires, but as fires burn hotter and longer each year, the amount of money allocated under the formula runs out earlier each year. (The Forest Service and the BLM spent $2.7 billion last year fighting fires, the costliest season on record.)
It's not as if the firefighters are able to simply walk away from the firelines when those budgets run dry. That's when the agencies are forced to dip into other accounts.
The worst part of this fire borrowing practice is that the budgets raided to help cover firefighting bills often are for maintenance projects on federal lands, such as efforts to thin forests and to remove the undergrowth that helps to fuel the most intense fires. The result: a vicious cycle as poorly maintained forest lands burn hotter and hotter in succeeding years.
The spending bill approved last week 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.
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.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden played a key role in brokering the deal, according to news accounts, but the Democrat was joined by other members of Congress, from both parties.
"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," Wyden said in a statement. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, a Democrat, and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, a Republican, helped push the effort through the Senate. GOP Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington also played key roles.
There was complaining among other lawmakers that the measure didn't do enough to improve the health of the nation's forests. In particular, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, was pushing a House-backed bill that called for faster approval of logging projects to reduce the risk of fire in national forests.
In general, we believe it would be worthwhile to get people back to work in our national forests. But Bishop's House bill is a good example of the kind of legislation that has short-circuited earlier efforts to fix at least part of the fire borrowing problem. Every time a relatively simple fix to the problem was proposed, it got weighted down with a variety of proposals regarding the management of federal lands. Eventually, the extra weight would drag down the proposal, Congress would adjourn and we'd watch our forests go up in smoke as the bills mounted.
Our forests, of course, still will burn this summer. But by focusing on a relatively simple answer, and working across party lines, Congress has taken a big step toward breaking a fiery vicious cycle. We're gratified, but we must confess: We didn't think this day ever would arrive.
— Corvallis Gazette-Times