Merkley Secures New Funding to Prevent and Fight Wildfires

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley today announced key provisions in the U.S. Department of Interior Appropriations bill that provide critical investments in earthquake preparedness, water infrastructure, and wildfire suppression and recovery activities that are of particular importance to Oregon as wildfires become increasingly frequent and extreme.

“From flames that threaten homes to hazardous smoke that blankets entire communities, every Oregonian has experienced the consequences of increasingly severe and frequent wildfires,” Merkley said. “This bill invests in both recovery and prevention efforts to save our forests, our communities, and our farms, ranches and other businesses from devastating losses. It also secures critical resources for water infrastructure that will create jobs while improving sanitation and drinking water across Oregon. I will continue to use my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to fight for the emergency and long-term resources communities across Oregon rely on.”

Merkley is the only Oregon member of Congress from either chamber since Senator Mark Hatfield to serve on the Appropriations Committee, considered to be one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill. He joined the committee in 2013 so that Oregon would have a strong voice in decisions about the investments our nation should be making.

Key elements of the appropriations bill that will impact Oregon include:

Forest Health Restoration and Collaboration: The bill includes funding increases for several programs that reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires on public and private lands. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management received an additional $19 million and $5 million, respectively, for hazardous fuels reduction, bringing the total funding level to $648 million. In addition, Senator Merkley fought to maintain funding for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program at $40 million. Oregon has three active CFLR projects: Southern Blues Restoration Coalition Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project, Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, and Lakeview Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project.

Wildfire Management: In anticipation of the coming fire season, the bill includes $1.394 billion for fire suppression at the Forest Service and Department of the Interior. Fiscal Year 2020 is also the first year that the bipartisan “fire borrowing fix” comes into effect. This results in $2.25 billion in additional funds available for fire suppression and other priorities within the Interior bill. 

Columbia River Basin Restoration Program: The EPA will receive $1.2 million to begin the planning process to implement the Columbia River Basin Restoration Program. Merkley created this program to provide grants to business owners, farmers, ranchers, local governments, and others in the Columbia Basin to clean up and reduce toxics for a cleaner, healthier basin.

Klamath Basin Water and Wildlife Conservation: Senator Merkley continued his support toward a long-term solution in the Klamath Basin, including $7 million, a $3 million increase, to support strategies to restore fish habitat and scale up ongoing efforts to restore healthy populations of shortnose and Lost River sucker fish.

Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT): The bill includes $500 million for the PILT program to fund vital services for rural communities, including public safety, social services, transportation and housing. This funding goes to Oregon counties that have large tracts of federal land, which doesn’t pay property taxes. This is $35 million over the President’s request.

Clean Air and Water Funding: Merkley successfully led Senate Democrats in protecting funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. President Trump’s budget proposed cutting the agency, which is responsible for reducing pollution and safeguarding public health, by 31 percent. Merkley organized 37 of his colleagues in urging opposition to those cuts, and the Committee provided an additional $161 million for the EPA.

Water Infrastructure: Critical water infrastructure loan programs under the Water Infrastructure Financing Innovation Authority (WIFIA) Act received $73 million to leverage over $6.6 billion in investments. Merkley authored the WIFIA program in 2012, working to ensure public drinking water and wastewater infrastructure are well-maintained — critical for public health and safety, strong local businesses, population growth, and clean rivers and aquifers. WIFIA was passed into law as part of the 2014 Water Resources Development Act.

Tribal Programs: The Indian Health Service, which provides health care to thousands of Oregon Tribal members, received $6.041 billion, a $238 million increase. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education received an additional $51 million. 

Land and Water Conservation Fund: The bill provides $465 million, enough to fund all pending LWCF projects in Oregon. For over 50 years the program has been the main source of funding for federal land and water acquisitions. Acquiring and protecting public lands not only provides environmental and recreational benefits, but also creates jobs in the tourism, recreation, timber, fishing, and other natural resource sectors.

Earthquake Preparedness: The bill includes $170.8 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to support regional earthquake initiatives including ShakeAlert. The bill also encourages the USGS to continue the development of a system for Cascadia that will help prepare for and mitigate the negative human and economic impacts of a major seismic event.

The bill was voted out of the Senate Appropriations Committee today. The next step for the bill is a full Senate vote, and eventually merging with a counterpart bill from the U.S. House of Representatives in order to be passed by both houses and signed into law.