Senate Hearing Follows Announcement between U.S. Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service on Good Neighbor Authority Agreement
Washington, DC - Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet discussed the threat of wildfire and the dysfunctional way wildfire suppression is funded, including the negative effects of "fire borrowing," at a hearing in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. At the hearing, entitled "Wildfire: Stakeholder Perspectives on Budgetary Impacts and Threats to Natural Resources on Federal, State and Private Lands," Chris Treese of the Colorado River Water Conservation District discussed the problem of fire borrowing and the long-term effects of catastrophic wildfires.
During the hearing Bennet said:
"What comes through to me is that there is a compelling consensus that what we are doing now does not work and that we have got to change and it's long overdue... In the name of fiscal responsibility we are managing our forests in the most fiscally irresponsible way we can manage them. Which is to say we are taking the money that could be spent on mitigation and restoration, and we're using it to suppress fires and then there's no money left to mitigate or restore. It's penny wise and pound foolish. Nobody at the local level would accept this way of managing their resources, and we shouldn't accept it either."
Wildfire is a growing threat throughout the west and the cost of fighting wildfires and the resulting fire borrowing is one of the biggest problems facing the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Wildfire spending has more than doubled since the 1990s, climbing from $1.6 billion in 1994 to $3.9 billion in 2014. In seven of the past ten years, the USFS has exceeded its budget for wildfire suppression, requiring the Agency to conduct fire borrowing to cover suppression costs. The borrowed funds come from accounts that should be used for hazardous fuels treatment and other forest management activities. Bennet is co-sponsoring the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to fund wildfires like other natural disasters through a separate disaster funding cap.
In May of this year, Bennet invited Senator Cory Gardner to join him at a Fire and Forestry Summit to receive recommendations from a report Bennet previously commissioned on steps the federal government can take to better support Colorado's wildfire mitigation efforts. Bennet and Gardner heard from Colorado experts in forestry and fire mitigation to discuss their real-world experiences working in Colorado forests and communities. The recommendations were then send to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. Bennet also included many of the recommendations in the revised PREPARE Act he reintroduced with Senator Mike Crapo in August to provide targeted investments for wildfire mitigation.
During the Senate's consideration of the 2014 Farm Bill, Bennet secured several provisions to address wildfire mitigation and suppression efforts, including one to extend Good Neighbor authority to all states. Yesterday, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced that they finalized a Good Neighbor Authority agreement with the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS). The collaborative agreement will create a federal-state partnership that will leverage state resources to protect water supplies, manage bark beetle, reduce wildfire, and other forest management activities.
Bennet also successfully passed several other measures as a part of the Farm Bill to improve forest health and reduce fuel loads to mitigate the cost and damage of wildfires. These include stewardship contracting which supports public-private partnerships to maintain national forests and streamlining the treatment of beetle-killed forests by designating new national forest acreages for expedited treatments. The USFS has currently designated approximately 46.7 million acres of National Forest System lands across 36 states as potentially eligible for expedited treatment, and two fast-tracked projects are currently underway in Colorado.
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