Emergency Funds Needed For Wildland Firefighting, Forest Restoration

Chairman Bingaman's Opening Statement From Committee Hearing on July 16

July 16, 2002
12:00 AM
This afternoon the Committee will hear from the Office of Management and Budget and others regarding the current and immediate need for additional funds to pay for emergency firefighting and forest restoration costs. On June 25, 2002, Senator Kyl and I, along with nine other Senators, sent a letter to OMB urging that they immediately request emergency funds to pay for firefighting and burned area restoration. Unfortunately, we never received a reply so I appreciate OMB’s presence here today to discuss the issue. The facts are clear – • this is a bad fire season, • given the drought conditions everyone should have expected this situation, • 3.2 million acres have burned this year primarily in the Southwest and we haven’t even reached the height of the fire season in the northern part of the country, and • the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have exhausted their available funds to pay for firefighting, and millions of dollars more are needed now. Some contend that the agencies’ business as usual practice of borrowing from other agency accounts to pay for firefighting, to be reimbursed at a later date by Congress, is the appropriate response to this situation. I strongly disagree for the following reasons. First, while officials here in Washington assure us that no programs are negatively impacted by this borrowing practice, communities in New Mexico and across the country report that grants and contracts that were ready to be awarded are now being put on hold to pay for firefighting. This even includes contracts and grants for proactive restoration projects to reduce future fire risk. For example, funds to begin work on the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Project are now held up in order to pay for firefighting. The purpose of this project is to reduce fuels to prevent catastrophic wildfire that could harm the watershed (the source for 40% of Santa Fe’s water). Earlier this year the agency allocated $400,000. towards the project and more recently, the Forest Service agreed to add an additional $400,000. because of the project’s high priority. With these funds, approximately 800 acres were to be treated this year beginning August 1st. Now, with the funds pulled back to pay for firefighting, if reimbursement does not arrive until the end of October, it will be too late to complete any work this fiscal year. Community representatives tell us that in some cases, these funds are never seen again even after Congress reimburses the agencies. I find it appalling that the Administration would treat natural resource dependent communities in this way. Why are you asking communities and resource managers to expend the time and money to prepare projects . . . only to pull the rug out from under them at the last minute? As one of the witnesses at today’s hearing will testify, borrowing from base accounts to pay for emergency firefighting will have "dire consequences" for communities and the forest ecosystems. Second, postponing, in some cases indefinitely, needed forest restoration projects directly contradicts the National Fire Plan’s long term approach, namely, in order to decrease the number of catastrophic wildland fires, we need to restore our national forests and public lands through hazardous fuels reduction, burned area restoration and rehabilitation, and other measures. Third, the Forest Service has a poor track record with respect to repaying accounts. For example, last year, the Forest Service borrowed millions of dollars from its hazardous fuels reduction account to pay for emergency firefighting but then did not fully return the funds to that account after being reimbursed by Congress. During the Committee’s last hearing on the National Fire Plan, approximately two months ago, when I asked the Forest Service witness about this example, he replied that the situation does bring up concerns in the long term but they had to pay for firefighting costs. This is unacceptable and we should not allow this practice to continue. In my opinion, the Supplemental Appropriations bill provides the most expedient manner to secure the critical firefighting and forest restoration funds. However, if efforts to include these funds are unsuccessful or if the Supplemental bill continues to be held up, I plan to offer, along with Senator Kyl and several other Senators, a floor amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill to secure these funds. Finally, I would like to note that, ever since the National Fire Plan was first funded by Congress two years ago, we have continually emphasized the need to sustain a commitment to the National Fire Plan over a long enough period of time to make a difference – at least 15 years. This means, at a minimum, sustaining fiscal year 2001 funding levels for all components of the National Fire Plan. Unfortunately, important programs that are part of the National Fire Plan, including economic action programs, community and private land fire assistance, and burned area restoration and rehabilitation have been drastically cut – and in some instances zeroed out – by the Administration over the last two budget cycles. For some accounts included under the National Fire Plan, but not all, Congress has made up the difference. However, it would certainly be much easier to fully fund the National Fire Plan with the Administration’s support. Recently, the Western Governors’ Association sent a letter to Congress urging full funding of the National Fire Plan at the fiscal year 2001 funding levels. I am pleased that we will hear today from Montana Governor Judy Martz, speaking on behalf of the Western Governors’ Association. She will be able to provide us with additional insight on these issues from the Governors’ perspective. I would like to thank all of the witnesses who are here to testify today. These are bipartisan issues and I plan to work with all of the Members of this Committee to take what actions we can to decrease the threat of catastrophic wildfire and to ensure the safety of firefighters and the general public. # # #