‘…Wildfires across the country continue to grow…”: Senators demand reversal of proposed cuts to wildfire prevention

With preparations for wildfire season already underway, Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden joined five western Senate colleagues in calling on the Trump administration to reverse proposed funding cuts to critical wildfire prevention and forest restoration projects throughout the country, said a press release from Merkley’s office.

The administration’s recently released budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year cuts funding from nearly every U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of the Interior (DOI) account related to forestry, said the press release.

“It is inexplicable that the administration proposed to cut nearly every USDA and DOI account related to forestry in your FY 2020 budget,” the senators wrote in a letter addressed to Acting Interior Secretary Bernhardt and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “It is well-documented that — because of climate change, a century of well-intentioned but misguided fire suppression strategies, and dramatically increased development in the wildland-urban interface — wildfires across the country continue to grow in size and cost year after year.”

The letter also highlights previous comments made by administration officials and statistics from the U.S. Forest Service about the importance of fire prevention efforts. According to the Forest Service, “80 million acres of National Forest lands and 70,000 communities are at risk of uncharacteristically severe wildfires”— yet Trump’s budget proposes fuel reduction or maintenance work on only 3.4 million acres, said the press release.

“With enactment of the budget fix last March, Congress gave the agencies the ability to dramatically scale up investments to restore those 80 million acres. Remarkably, at the administration’s first opportunity to make these urgently needed investments, you are telling Congress you plan to continue with business as usual,” the senators’ letter continued. “We urge you to reconsider your inadequate budget submission and send Congress an amended request that more appropriately matches the science-based restoration needs of our shared federal forests.”

In the 2018 spending bill, Merkley and Wyden fought to include a fix to address “fire borrowing,” allowing federal agencies to use disaster money to fund fire suppression efforts rather than taking funds from fire prevention and other forest management programs to fight wildfires. However, in a compromise with the House Republicans, the provision will not come into effect until 2020, said a press release. In the most recent spending bill, passed in February after the government shutdown, Merkley and Wyden fought to increase funding for wildfire prevention, including $2.05 billion in funding for wildfire suppression, with an additional $508 million available as an emergency buffer to more accurately account for the growing cost of recent catastrophic fires, said the press release.

In addition to Merkley and Wyden, the letter to Acting Secretary Bernhardt and Secretary Perdue was also signed by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif).