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Congress Fails to Act on Wildfires

Frank Sturges, photo USDA

Last Friday, Congress kicked off their five-week summer recess, but not before refusing to approve emergency funds for wildfire suppression. Over 30 large fires are currently blazing across the American West, including the 4,700-acre El Portal Fire in Yosemite National Park, which has already cost over $9 million, and the over 250,000-acre Carlton Complex in Central Washington, the largest in that state's history. Thousands of wildland firefighters are deployed to stop the spread of these wildfires from the U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior, and state agencies like Cal Fire.

While the number of acres burning continues to grow, the cost of this summer's fire season is also on the rise. In May, the Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service projected a $470 million budget shortfall, and the administration requested an emergency budget supplemental that would have included $615 million plug that gap in paying for fire costs this year.

However, neither chamber of Congress acted to fund wildfires before heading out of town -- leaving the question of how the Forest Service and Interior will pay for this ongoing work. They will most likely turn to "fire borrowing," or taking money from other agency priorities to pay for wildfire. A report from the Forest Service earlier this summer explains the impact this practice has on cancelling and delaying necessary forest management programs across the country.

On Thursday, the Senate's version of the emergency supplemental that would have included both the $615 million for this year and reformed future wildfire funding by including the text similar to the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act failed a procedural vote. "Fires are raging all over the West," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) remarked. "This is an emergency." The House version of the emergency budget, which passed late Friday, included no funding for wildfires.

Western governors are pressing to break through Congressional inaction. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, whose state is facing a state of emergency due to fires, sent a letter to Congress supporting the $615 million wildfire funding request. It joins another letter last week from the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington supporting the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act which would provide greater certainty for funds in future fire seasons. Part of the letter reads, "As is already being seen in this 2014 fire season, our States face similar wildfire problems that are exacerbated by the current drought. Already, the citizens of our states have been affected by hundreds of thousands of acres burned, and this will likely continue throughout the summer."

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a favorable hearing on the bill in July, but the House has yet to take it up despite a bipartisan group of over 130 cosponsors. "What has this House of Representatives done while the bone-dry West has gone up in flames?" asked Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. "Nothing. Not even a hearing on this bipartisan, common-sense legislation to fix our wildfire funding crisis."

Another group of Senators recently introduced a competing proposal for wildfire funding, the FLAME Act Amendments. This bill takes the language of S. 1966, a dangerous piece of legislation that mandates clear-cutting, and repackages it as wildfire prevention. By increasing the amount of timber production without providing any additional funds, S. 1966 or the new FLAME Act, would not solve the challenges of fire borrowing but rather compound them by forcing the U.S. Forest Service to move even more resources away from its multiple-use mission that includes recreation, watershed health, and wildlife habitat. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwelltestified against S. 1966 in February before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, remarking that the agency “cannot support the bill as it is currently written as it rolls back key environmental safeguards, diminishes public participation, sets artificial management targets in statute, and leads to potentially more conflict.”

Take action and let your representatives in Congress know that you oppose S. 1966 and want scientifically sound, collaborative forest management that supports local economies and helps restore our nation’s forests.