Omnibus Bill Delivers Fire Funding Fix, New Fuels Reduction Tools
By Nick Smith
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, also known as the “omnibus” bill, delivered a number of legislative victories for federal forest management. Notably, the bipartisan forestry package gives federal agencies additional funding and new policy tools to support fuels reduction work on public lands.
Chief among these victories is a solution to federal “fire borrowing” that has hamstrung federal land management agencies for many years. The process for setting federal wildfire budgeting at the 10-year average of suppression costs has failed to keep pace with larger and increasingly severe fires. Whenever the agency exhausts its firefighting budget for the fiscal year, it is forced to redirect money from non-fire programs including those for fuels reduction.
The Society of American Foresters, the conservation community, forest products industry, and other stakeholders have long advocated for a solution to fire borrowing. Some have proposed simply allowing agencies to access emergency disaster funds when suppression funds are exhausted, but the idea has faced resistance from key members of Congress. After four years of negotiations a compromise was finally reached, though the solution is nuanced and comes with a few caveats.
According to the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, the omnibus includes a new fire suppression funding mechanism that will adjust federal spending caps to accommodate firefighting needs. The legislation provides a new “disaster cap allocation” for wildfires starting in Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 at $2.25 billion, which increases to $2.95 billion in FY 2027. In addition, the legislation freezes the wildfire suppression line item at the Forest Service at the FY 2015 level to stop the slow migration of non-fire funding to the fire programs at the beginning of each fiscal year.
Importantly, the new budget cap doesn’t come into effect until FY 2020. For FY 2018 and 2019, the bill provides $1.946 billion in fire suppression funding, to be allocated to the Department of Interior and the Forest Service. If this funding, which is $500 million above the current 10-year average, proves insufficient, the Congress will have to provide additional emergency spending.
In addition to the budget fix, the $1.2 trillion omnibus increases wildfire-related programs by nearly $550 million, including an $80 million increase to the Forest Service’s Hazardous Fuels line item. In total, hazardous fuels and fire accounts total $3.3 billion out of the $5.9 billion total (55 percent) for the Forest Service.
The omnibus bill includes several forest management policy reforms. This includes a new 3,000-acre Categorical Exclusion (CE) under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) for Forest Service “Wildfire Resilience” projects. The CE must use a collaborative process, consider best available science, and maximize retention of old-growth and large trees. Projects must be located within landscapes designated under the Farm Bill as of March 23, 2018. Projects may also be within the Wildland Urban Interface, or within Condition Class 2 or 3, or Fire Regime Groups I, II, or III that contain very high wildfire hazard potential. Before using this CE, the Forest Service is required to apply its “extraordinary circumstances” regulation to ensure no significant effects.
The omnibus also reforms vegetation management around power lines and establishes new HFRA categories for fuel breaks and fire breaks. Under HFRA, these projects are eligible for expedited procedures including action/no-action analysis and a waiver of the administrative objection process.
Further, the omnibus bill amends federal Stewardship Contracting. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior can now award 20-year stewardship contracts, or agreements in areas where the majority of federal lands are in Fire Regime Groups I, II, or III. It permits agencies to give a preference to contractors that would, as part of a contract, promote an innovative use of forest products, including cross-laminated timber. The legislation also includes fixes to address the cancellation ceiling excess value, as well as the annual reporting issues associated with Stewardship Contracting.
The bill also requires mapping within two years of wildfire risks to inform evaluations of wildfire risk, prioritize fuels management needs, and show potential for wildfire that could be difficult for suppression resources to contain and that could cause ignitions to structures. Finally, the omnibus bill provides a long-sought improvement to the federal Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) law that allows state agencies to work with the Forest Service to implement projects on forests in need of treatment. Specifically, it permits GNA projects to include reconstruction, repair, or restoration of National Forest System roads.
Overall, the forestry package in the omnibus bill is a major accomplishment. It will help federal agencies improve management of federally-owned forests, reduce fuel loads, and mitigate the risks of catastrophic fires.
Nick Smith is a member of the Portland Chapter of the Oregon Society of American Foresters. He is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, which advocates for active forest management on publicly-owned forests. He can be reached at email@example.com.