Merkley Presses Forest Service Chief on Wildfire Funding, Forest Management

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley on Tuesday met with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke to discuss the need for funding to help Oregon recover from this year’s devastating wildfire season, and to push for a surge in activity to reduce the risk of wildfires next season. 

“Oregon and states across the West have been hit by wildfire disasters that have displaced people, wreaked havoc on businesses, and upended whole communities,” Merkley said. “It’s critical that the federal government help our communities recover. And it’s equally critical that we get serious about reducing the risk of more devastating fires. Our forests are time bombs, and we need a surge in funding and recovery activity to respond to this crisis.”

One necessary improvement is to end the practice of “fire borrowing,” in which the Forest Service has to raid other agency programs, such as fire prevention activities, to fund suppression costs. Merkley worked to include emergency wildfire relief funding last month in a disaster relief package to minimize the impacts of fire borrowing by allowing the Forest Service to quickly repay funds it borrowed in September to fight fire on the nearly 8.5 million acres of land that burned in nine western states. Almost one-third of those acres were in Oregon. The Forest Service has already spent $2.4 billion on suppression — the first time on record the agency has reached the $2 billion mark.

Merkley is a cosponsor of Sen. Ron Wyden’s Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017, which would end “fire borrowing” by treating large wildfires as natural disasters, and stop the erosion of the Forest Service’s budget by reforming the way the federal government funds wildfires.

During the meeting, Chief Tooke expressed his support for this approach.  

Merkley is now working to include additional funding in the next disaster response package. The senator wants to ensure that firefighting agencies can repay hundreds of millions of dollars in subsequently borrowed funds, but has emphasized that there is an enormous amount of additional work to do now that the fires are largely out.

“Chief Tooke talked about the need to immediately address damage in our forests. Such activities would include stabilizing stream banks, rebuilding trails, and replanting trees. This has my full support,” Merkley said.

“In addition,” Merkley continued, “we discussed the need for greatly increasing funding to improve the fire resiliency of our forests and reduce the severity of catastrophic wildfires. In Oregon, there are 1.6 million acres that have already cleared environmental review for thinning and hazardous fuels reduction. If Congress would just appropriate the funds, we could get to work right away to reduce fire risk and improve the health of our forests. “

“The money we spend on fire suppression has risen to 55 percent of the Forest Service’s budget and will likely continue to increase,” said Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke. “We find ourselves regularly transferring money from other budget areas to support fire suppression, meaning prevention programs that reduce the severity of wildfires suffer. This leaves us with inadequate resources to properly manage forests. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has called on Congress to fix this funding structure problem and we are hopeful that a forthcoming solution will gain momentum.”   

Merkley is the only Oregon member of Congress from either chamber since Senator Mark Hatfield to serve on the Appropriations Committee, which will lead the writing of the next disaster relief bill. He joined the committee in 2013 so that Oregon would have a strong voice in decisions about the investments our nation should be making.