By George Plaven
February 3, 2016
Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden is once again working with Idaho Republican Mike Crapo on legislation to fix wildfire funding.
Wyden and Crapo introduced an amendment to the Senate’s proposed energy bill on Tuesday that would end “fire-borrowing,” where land management agencies shift money from other programs to cover the cost of fighting large wildfires.
Wyden described fire-borrowing as “budgetary quicksand” that drags down every program at the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The amendment would establish a new Wildfire Disaster Relief Fund — which is similar to how the federal government pays for other natural disasters.
A summary of the amendment says it will free up roughly $300 million in funding for active land management and fire prevention.
“We know that disaster-scale wildfires are going to continue to be a threat,” Crapo said. “We can better prepare for the increasing costs of wildland fire suppression by providing land managers and firefighters the certainty needed to plan and allocate resources properly without robbing from other priorities during each fire season.”
Congress passed a spending bill in December that increased fire funding for one year, but the senators said this amendment will provide a long-term solution. The legislation has support from 21 co-sponsors in the Senate, 145 co-sponsors in the House and more than 250 groups representing hunters, anglers, timber companies and conservationists.
The amendment also includes several provisions for forest management, including measures to fast-track thinning projects recommended by a collaborative working group. Collaboratives must include scientists, conservationists and land managers, as well as local governments, tribes and industry.
Projects would still need to comply with local forest plans and federal laws, but could move forward more quickly if they meet certain criteria.
Finally, the amendment includes several environmental provisions such as permanently authorizing the Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Sedimentation Program, which lets the agency decommission roads and replace other unnatural fish barriers.
Wyden followed up Tuesday’s energy bill amendment with another on Wednesday, this time working with fellow Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley. They proposed requiring the Energy Information Administration to publish monthly data about new flammable liquids carried by rail.
The EIA already started publishing crude-by-rail data in March. This would expand the program to provide the same information for ethanol and liquefied natural gas.
“Railroads have become synonymous with shipping crude oil and ethanol, and in a few years may well become synonymous with shipping liquefied natural gas,” Wyden said. “Taxpayers deserve timely, transparent and reliable information on flammable liquids moving through different regions by rail, and the very real safety concerns that go along with it.”
The senators introduced these amendments to the Energy Policy Modernization Act, which the Senate is considering this week.