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Forest Service likely to get more money to fight wildfires, at least for a year

Forest Service likely to get more money to fight wildfires, at least for a year
A firefighting air tanker flies in front of the setting sun while battling the Rocky fire in August near Clearlake, Calif. The U.S. Forest Service will see its firefighting budget rise in 2016. (Justin Sullivan / AFP/Getty Images)

Late last summer, with wildfires burning throughout the West and the U.S. Forest Service announcing yet again that it would have to borrow money to fight them, lawmakers from the region vowed that this would be the year Congress fixed the funding problem and found ways to make forests more resilient against fire.

Sure enough, there it was early this week — a proposed solution attached to the omnibus budget bill lawmakers now appear poised to pass. The measure was backed by the White House, several Western senators of both parties, timber industry leaders and some conservation groups.

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But by Wednesday morning, after congressional leaders announced a final version of the budget bill, the provisions changing how firefighting is funded and forests are protected were gone.

In their place: a massive $600-million increase in the fire suppression budget, which is about 50% more than was budgeted this year.

In budget vernacular, that kind of increase is called a "plus up" — and a big one. Yet Robert Bonnie, who oversees the Forest Service in his role as an undersecretary of Agriculture, called it "a Band-Aid."

"The money's helpful," Bonnie said of the added suppression funds, in an interview Wednesday, "but we very much need a long-term fix."

In the last two decades, the Forest Service has seen its firefighting allocation creep steadily higher, from just over 15% of its total budget in the 1990s to more than half of it now.

At the same time, fires are burning up more of the West than ever before, and climate change is expected to make the situation worse.

This year, the Forest Service spent more than $1.7 billion fighting fires, a record. (The extra $600 million for next year would bring the budgeted amount to just below this year's spending level.)

But while Bonnie was among those who supported the language in the budget bill earlier this week, the provisions were unacceptable to two powerful senators who helped make sure it was removed: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maria Cantwell of Washington.

Murkowski, a Republican, is the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Cantwell, a Democrat, is the committee's ranking minority member.

"The proposal that surfaced during the budget negotiations was not the right way to go," Murkowski said. "It was not developed in the open and transparent manner that we would hope. It was not fully vetted."

Both senators saw their states devastated by wildfire this year and have long said they want to remake the way firefighting is funded and forests are managed. Both have proposed legislation of their own in the past. And late Wednesday, each went out of her way to praise the leadership of the other on the issue during speeches on the Senate floor. They promised to pursue legislation early in 2016.

That does not mean the senators expect to agree on everything.

The language initially included in the budget bill would have made several significant changes. It would have set up a process by which the Forest Service could request federal disaster money typically spent on things like hurricanes. In the name of forest preservation, it also included provisions that would have eased environmental restrictions on logging and thinning of forests.

While thinning can help counter decades of fire suppression that has allowed forests to become dangerously and unnaturally dense, where to draw the line between thinning and more expansive logging has been a constant fight.

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"Adding such problematic language to the legislation will only create controversy and bog down progress on an issue that is otherwise well supported," environmental groups including Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote to congressional leaders on Friday.

Evidence of the debate was clear even amid the goodwill on the Senate floor.

While Murkowski questioned the proposed funding mechanism, she also suggested that the bill did not go far enough toward easing logging in her state. She called the budget bill language "a good start" but also "a missed opportunity."

In Alaska, she said, people are "at physical risk from fire and at an economic risk from restrictions on timber harvesting."

Those were among the reasons why Murkowski, who is also on the Appropriations Committee, helped push through the $600-million increase this year.

"It provides real money now, and it gives us the time to develop longer-term real solutions," she said.

Heaping more praise on Cantwell, Murkowski then gave her the floor, prompting Cantwell to heap praise right back at her, particularly for the funding increase this year.

But Cantwell offered a somewhat different wish list of needs, including money for new air tankers, communications equipment and mapping. And while she said "massive fuel reduction does need to take place," she also expressed reservations about easing logging restrictions.

"We're not going to get at this overall solution by simply clear-cutting large swaths of land," Cantwell said.

And with that, the senators yielded the floor and the debate continued, apparently into next year.

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