Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says maybe now that GOP is in control, Congress will end ‘fire borrowing’

January 3, 2017 GMT

BOISE – Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who made her final official visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Tuesday, said it’s “very frustrating” that after years of pressure and bipartisan agreement, Congress still hasn’t approved changes in how wildland firefighting is funded, to avoid robbing prevention budgets every time there’s a bad fire season.

“I will remain optimistic that when we have full control by one party, that there’s no one to blame for themselves for not moving forward on this issue,” Jewell told reporters. She noted that it’s an issue “that has been bipartisan, but very much impacts people in the West – and the Republican Party is well represented in the West, so perhaps we’ll see some movement.”

Idaho GOP Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden have been among the leading voices to change the funding system, and instead fund the biggest and costliest wildfires in the same manner that other natural disasters are funded.

This year, the Senate included the change in its budget bill for the Department of Interior, Jewell said, “saying that we’re going to take the most devastating wildfires and fund them as the disasters that they are.” But the House version didn’t include the change. And then in the end, no budget passed.

“We don’t have a budget for 2017. We have a continuing resolution, which is the 2016 budget going forward,” Jewell said. “So we can do what we do every year, which is pray that the fire season won’t be so bad and that we’ll be able to continue our work on prevention, which of course stops this spiral from escalating.”

“Or we can have bad luck, which means that we might have a bad fire season, and we may end up with having to borrow from our prevention programs and our burned area rehabilitation programs to put into fire suppression. It’s very frustrating,” she said.

The outgoing Interior secretary said she’s already spoken on the phone with her successor, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, and plans to meet with him when she returns to Washington, D.C. “Congressman Zinke is aware of this issue, as are his colleagues from both sides of the aisle,” Jewell said, “so it’s going to hit him up close.”

She added, “He comes from a state that certainly feels the effects of wildland fire and the benefit of putting people to work and preventing fire.”

Jewell, the former CEO of REI, the Seattle-based outdoor gear retailer, and a former oil industry engineer and banker, has served as secretary since April of 2013. She’s made such frequent visits to NIFC in Boise, where national wildland firefighting efforts are coordinated, that she called it her “home away from home in this job.” Frequently, she’s been joined on those visits by Idaho’s senators as they pushed for changes in how the nation funds wildland firefighting.

“The reality is that it’s bipartisan support from members of Congress, particularly in the Western United States, that live this problem every single day,” Jewell said. “And it is not as well embraced by their colleagues in the East, who I think are concerned that if they include wildland fire in disaster funding that that might take away from something else.”

But Jewell said the nation learned after Hurricane Sandy that “when we don’t make our landscapes resilient to storms, which are increasing in severity, or wildfires which are increasing in severity that we see across the country, we end up paying more at the end of the day for fixing up the damage after, as opposed to addressing it in advance.”

“An ounce of prevention is in fact worth a pound of cure,” she said.

Jewell’s tenure as interior secretary has been marked by a focus on collaborative efforts to make landscapes more resilient to increasingly hotter, drier and longer fire seasons, and a major change in how rangeland fires are addressed that U.S. Bureau of Land Management fire and aviation chief Ron Dunton said has “revolutionized how we approach rangeland fire in the West, particularly in the Great Basin.” It’s a collaborative approach that involves everyone from federal and state agencies to rural fire departments to ranchers; Jewell calls it “all hands, all lands.”

Janice Schneider, assistant secretary of interior for lands and minerals management, said the focus has been “how do we break down administrative barriers so that we can operate more effectively and more cost-efficiently.” She said the approach is working, “helping us work across landscapes so that we can enjoy healthy landscapes which are working landscapes as well as being landscapes that are protective of threatened and endangered species,” while also protecting other important values from human life to water supplies to economic interests.

Said Jewell, “We have seen enthusiasm on the ground by people working on rangeland.”

It’ll be important, going forward, for officials to discuss not only what burns, but what’s been prevented from burning, she said.

“It’s easy to throw resources at a big, massive fire, but it’s not a smart way to use resources,” Jewell said. “An administration that talks about wanting to bring business sense and efficiency into government spending – this is an area that I think they’ll find ripe territory for spending less up-front to gain a long-term return on that investment.”