President’s 2016 budget would reinstate timber payments

WASHINGTON — The 2016 budget released Monday by the White House calls for the reauthorization of timber payments, funds sage grouse conservation efforts and treats the largest wildfires as natural disasters.

The spending initiatives are all familiar to Central Oregon. The Secure Rural Schools program, which compensated timbered counties for harvest declines on federal lands, led to more than $2.8 billion in payments to Oregon counties from its creation in 2000 until it lapsed at the end of September.

Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued an executive order, instructing federal land managers to work with local officials to develop a science-based strategy for minimizing the destructive effects of rangeland wildfires on the sage grouse’s dwindling habitat.

And members of Oregon’s congressional delegation have introduced legislation that would pay to fight the top 1 percent of wildfires — which account for 30 percent of suppression costs — through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, just as is done with hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. The White House also included the wildfire proposal in last year’s budget, but neither effort made much headway. The plan hopes to end “fire borrowing,” the practice within U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in which the agencies raid other programs’ accounts when fire-suppression funds run out during increasingly intense fire seasons. While the other accounts are often backfilled, the work, including fire-prevention efforts involving removing hazardous fuels from overburdened forests, is often delayed or postponed.

“This is a forward-looking budget. It supports our core mission and makes key investments that will pay dividends in the future,” Jewell said Monday on a conference call with reporters.

Secure Rural Schools

The president’s budget calls for a five-year reauthorization of Secure Rural Schools with $190 million in funding for 2016, although the total payments drop to $105 million, $61 million, $37 million and $8 million over the following four years. These totals are well below the $300 million in total payments from last year but well above the $50.4 million that the administration will send to rural counties in the program’s absence.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who co-wrote the legislation creating the Secure Rural Schools program, tweeted his approval of its inclusion in the president’s 2016 budget. “The budget recognizes the dire need to renew the rural safety net & extend county payments. I’m fighting every day for it in Congress,” he tweeted Monday.

In a prepared statement, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also praised the budget’s inclusion of Secure Rural Schools funding as well as investments in education and infrastructure. “It (also) embraces the bipartisan wildfire-fighting reforms that Senator Wyden and I have pushed for, which would end the vicious cycle of robbing fire prevention funds to pay for fires that are already burning,” he said. “We need to stop shortchanging prevention funds and start treating wildfires like any other natural disaster, which is exactly what they are.”

The budget also sets aside $1.1 billion in emergency wildfire funding — $200 million for the BLM and $900 million for the Forest Service — which would be available to fight the biggest wildfires and separate from the agencies’ operations budget.

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