Congress members prepare alternative fire borrowing bills

July 16, 2016 GMT

MISSOULA — House and Senate Republican members called on their colleagues to pay attention to wildfire funding and forest management bills on Friday as Congress moved into its seven-week summer recess.

“We’re going to try to take action as soon as we come back,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said during a press conference on Friday. “The House moves pretty quickly, but the Senate has numerous committees that have jurisdiction. We’ll get to working away in the fall.”

Roberts’ Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016 (S. 3085) pairs with a bill by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, that passed the House last year. The Resilient Federal Forests Act (HR 2647) was co-sponsored by Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana. Roberts’ bill has no co-sponsors.

“When all the money is going to fight fires in the West, there’s no money for the Forest Service to manage forests in the South and East,” said Westerman. “And we haven’t told the story well enough about how much carbon gets emitted when these forests burn.”

Both bills would create a funding mechanism to end the U.S. Forest Service’s problem of “fire borrowing,” where the agency must raid its own annual budget to cover the costs of large forest fires. They would also change some of the rules governing how the Forest Service manages collaborative forest projects, uses categorical exclusions, and handles legal challenges.

The bills got a lukewarm response from Montana’s congressional delegation, all of whom are working on a different legislative package to fix the fire-borrowing problem. The Forest Service spent about 52 percent of its 2015 appropriation on wildfire costs.

“It’s not as bipartisan as I would hope,” Zinke said of the Waterman bill. “Our bill, which I strongly support, is the best road map going in. When (former Forest Service Chief) Dale Bosworth is testifying in favor of it, along with Dave Mahalic, who was superintendent of three national parks, I think I’m on pretty good ground. Those are my sounding boards, guys who have tremendous experience in the parks and forest.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said the Westerman-Roberts legislation used a less effective fire-borrowing solution than the version he supported, while adding controversial forest management changes that were likely to get vetoed.

“While there is no doubt we need to improve the management of our forests, these partisan bills fall short and fail to address the underlying problem of fires burning up resources that should be used to proactively manage our forests,” Tester said in an email. “I will continue to focus on bipartisan efforts that put folks to work in our forests and preserve our outdoor heritage.”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that’s working on the fire borrowing problem. In an email, he said he was pleased to see Agriculture Committee Chairman Roberts offering another solution.

“I’m encouraged by the growing bipartisan support for meaningful reforms to protect and grow good-paying jobs, enhance forest health, and treat catastrophic wildfires as natural disasters,” Daines wrote.

One place where agreement does appear to exist is how the fire spending problem might get resolved – in a post-Election Day scramble. During a visit to Missoula earlier this week, Tester predicted the forest management bills could end up attached to some public lands omnibus bill in what he called a “fairly active lame duck session.”

Sen. Roberts made a similar forecast on Friday.

“We’re looking at any vehicles, and I do literally mean any vehicles, to get this done,” Roberts said. “It could be a stand-alone bill, or part of an energy bill conference. We are also looking at the end of year for some kind of omnibus that deals with appropriations. Those are all options.”