Tucked away in the massive $1.3 trillion federal omnibus spending bill is a much-needed policy fix that ends the frustrating practice of "fire borrowing."
Before the president signed the bill Friday, the cost of fighting catastrophic wildfires in the West was wreaking havoc with efforts to reduce the threat of fires in the first place.
Most federal agencies can draw from an emergency fund to pay for disaster response. But not the Forest Service and the Interior Department. With no access to disaster funds, they've been forced to borrow from other areas of their budgets, creating a destructive cycle of fighting megafires at the expense of programs that are supposed to mitigate fire risk.
This wildland fire funding problem affects Western states, so it's no surprise that Colorado's U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner were instrumental in forging a bipartisan coalition to include a fix in the spending bill.
The deal secured in the omnibus is based on the framework from Bennet and Gardner's Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. It provides the Forest Service with certainty in its discretionary funding for programs other than firefighting so that more agency resources can be spent on management and restoration. It allows the Forest Service to "complete the entirety of its mission," without being undermined by the pressures of fire, Bennet said.
"The Forest Service plays an important role in Colorado's economy — affecting our water supply, outdoor recreation, and timber industry," Bennet said. "Its ability to budget effectively and efficiently is critical to our economic success. Because of the pressures that wildfires have brought to the West, as well as the challenges of climate change and development, the antiquated way we pay for firefighting needed dramatic change."
Gardner hailed the fire funding fix as good news for Colorado.
"Year after year, much of the West is forced to deal with horrible wildfires that burn millions of acres, and funding that should be applied to fire prevention and mitigation projects is instead spent by the Forest Service fighting these fires. Our provision will ensure the Forest Service has the necessary funding for cleanup and prevention efforts that will help reduce the amount of catastrophic wildfires the Forest Service has to fight."
With costs exceeding $2.4 billion, the 2017 fire was season was the most expensive ever, according to the Forest Service's Cost of Fire Operations program. Colorado's anemic snowpack may contribute to an earlier and above-normal fire season, underscoring the need for a fire funding fix.
The spending bill is a source of controversy because it amounts to a $143 billion spending hike with increases in both defense and non-defense spending in an era of historically high debt. While there may be plenty to criticize about funding levels for various agencies, we're grateful that Bennet and Gardner found a way to help Western states get ahead of a problem that has plagued them for too long.