Keep opportunistic pork out of Forest Service's fire-fighting budget

Keep opportunistic pork out of Forest Service's fire-fighting budget
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It is a hallmark of our times that whenever a disaster occurs, a great many people rush to the aid of the victims. Some of these are genuinely concerned people trying to help. Others, however, often reveal themselves to be opportunists seeking to take advantage of the crisis to push an agenda they have long held for entirely different reasons.

For example, President Clinton’s “economic stimulus” bill that was defeated in early 1993 came after recovery from the 1990-91 recession was well under way and contained numerous items that key Democratic constituencies long had desired. Chastened by that embarrassing experience, the Democrats assembling the 2009 stimulus bill insisted that all its provisions have firm expiration dates, which ended up cutting off stimulus while the economy was still quite weak and failed to repair known deficiencies in our programs for responding to recessions.

The first round of emergency legislation for hurricane victims was pleasantly free of spurious provisions. We should scrutinize follow-on bills to make sure no extraneous agendas tag along for the ride.

Another disaster that is affecting a large segment of our country today is wildfires in the West. Like the hurricanes battering the Southeast, the frequency and intensity of these fires likely reflect our changing climate. And, like the hurricanes, they have produced many sympathetic victims whom many of us wish to help. Alas, their misfortune has also attracted opportunistic proposals that could make the problem even worse.

Secretary of Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog | Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service | Senate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service Justice Department investigating meat price increases: report MORE recently explained that the heart of the problem is the irrational method by which we fund fire-fighting by the U.S. Forest Service and other key federal agencies. For other major disasters, we maintain a reserve of funds that FEMA may access to provide relief; if that reserve runs out, Congress routinely and uncontroversially replenishes it, as just occurred.

With forest fires, however, we meet unanticipated demand by stripping money from the rest of the Forest Service’s budget when the — obviously inadequate — fire-fighting budget predictably runs dry. Broad bipartisan support has long existed for legislation to treat forest fires like other disasters, resulting in both more effective fire control and an end to the annual disruption of the Forest Service’s other work — including fire prevention.

The timber industry, however, has seen this disaster as its golden opportunity to push through a radical anti-environmental agenda that has nothing to do with fighting fires. This week the House will vote on H.R. 2936, the so-called Resilient Forests Act of 2017, which would strip away a wide range of environmental protections.

The irony of these proposals is that the very reviews they would abolish provide crucial information to help prevent or mitigate fires. The industry’s agenda is maximizing the timber cut, just as President Clinton’s agenda in the 1993 stimulus bill was maximizing funding for Democratic mayors. Knowing that a proposed logging project would increase fire risk (or degrade local water quality) is valuable to local communities, and to Forest Service decision-makers concerned with those communities’ well-being, but not to the timber industry.

Secretary Perdue recognized this in a press briefing on September 26 when he said that “if we have the funding that we can plan on to be used for forest management, I am confident we can get (environmental reviews) done.” The community consultations that environmental statutes require, the secretary noted, actually help the Forest Service do its job:

“The best job we do within the community of getting community buy-in with all the people in the community the better job we’re going to get done with working our forest management plans.”

Once a fire-funding fix is enacted to allow the Forest Service to conduct the rest of its activities in an organized, predictable way, “I think we can continue to manage the forest with getting NEPA regulations or requirements done in a quicker way as we collaborate and cooperate in a way to get things done.”

The fire-funding fix, “not necessarily legislative” changes to the way the Forest Service operates, is the key to reducing the danger, and cost, of forest fires:

“As we are able to get in there in a proactive managed way budgetarily and move ahead over a period of a few short years, I think we can get ahead of this and I believe you will see the forest suppression budget go down.”

The interests of local communities threatened by fire, and of all those who enjoy the wildlife in our forests, are not diametrically opposed to those of the timber industry. Properly designed logging projects can reduce fire risks and benefit everyone. Environmental reviews often will not just cast doubt on badly designed logging projects but identify alternatives that will reduce, rather than increase, fire risks.

We all should follow Secretary Perdue’s lead in prioritizing a comprehensive fire-funding fix as the most direct way to help fire-threatened communities. We should reject opportunistic efforts to attach counter-productive environmental measures to fire relief legislation.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.