Wildfire Funding in the Omnibus Bill: What You Need to Know

By: Cecilia Clavet, The Nature Conservancy

Topic: Wildfire

Type: Essay

The $1.3 trillion spending package that Congress passed last month included a legislative solution that — after a decade of advocacy by a bipartisan group of organizations — fixes the way that the government pays to fight wildfires, stabilizing agency budgets.

The package also contained several forest management policies that could improve wildfire resilience for both forests and the communities living near them.

Wildfire Funding Fix

As wildfire seasons get longer and more intense across the country, the increasing costs of wildfire response have crippled the land management functions of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service. These agencies have been forced to shift their resources and fight wildfires with funds that could instead go toward improving forest resilience and reducing wildfire risk.

This past year, more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s budget was dedicated to fire, and that was expected to grow because of increased fuel buildup, more people moving into the wildland-urban interface and climate change. The USDA predicted that fighting wildfires would have accounted for up to two-thirds of the Forest Service budget by fiscal year 2021.

A graphic showing wildfire suppression consuming 16 percent of the USDA Forest Service's budget in 1995, 56 percent in 2017, and 67 percent in 2021 (projected). This projection was made prior to the enactment of the omnibus bill

Note that the budget prediction for 2025 eventually shifted up in time, to the prediction for 2021. Credit: USDA Forest Service

Non-fire budgets, such as those related to restoration, recreation, and fish and wildlife, shrank over time as more money was allocated to suppression. And those non-fire budgets were impacted again when suppression funding ran low — the agency transferred, or “borrowed,” money from those non-fire budgets to make up for the shortage. This unstable budget stalled even the landscape management activities meant to decrease the risk of wildfires across federal, state and private lands.

More than a decade ago, timber, environmental, forestry, recreation, and hunting and fishing groups, as well as other organizations, formed a diverse coalition dedicated to solving this unstable budgeting problem. Over the last three Congresses, the coalition supported the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act and has engaged in an extensive advocacy and awareness-raising campaign. In part because of the coalition’s efforts, bipartisan lawmakers championed the bill in both the House and the Senate, and more than 100 legislators from both sides of the aisle cosponsored each version of the legislation.

Impact on Fire Response Funding

The wildfire funding solution passed in Congress’ recent spending package is similar to the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, and the coalition praised its approval.

The “fire funding fix,” which begins in fiscal year 2020 and lasts through fiscal year 2027, gives Congress the ability to appropriate federal disaster funding to the Forest Service and DOI for a portion of their wildfire suppression activities. This change stabilizes overall agency budgets, eliminating the need to chip away at non-fire programs to increase suppression budgets. It also significantly reduces the need for those agencies to borrow from non-fire programs when they encounter suppression shortfalls. These changes mean land management agencies can focus on their missions without the uncertainty of not knowing whether they would have the necessary resources to do so.

This new mechanism for funding suppression is not a blank check — the federal agencies must still budget for their firefighting activities, and Congress will appropriate amounts of disaster funding based on the agencies’ proposed budgets. Additionally, the Forest Service and DOI will provide Congress with annual reports documenting suppression spending, wildfire events and decision-making processes.

Forest Management Policies

Lawmakers arrived at the wildfire funding solution after months of extensive negotiations between Republicans and Democrats. Another outcome of those negotiations was a new categorical exclusion authority for hazardous fuels reduction.

The new law also includes a series of other forest management policies that had long been supported by diverse groups. For example, the bill expands stewardship contracts from 10 to 20 years in fire-prone areas in need of risk-reduction work. It also amends the Good Neighbor Authority to allow road work when necessary for accessing project areas. Further, it reauthorizes the Secure Rural Schools Act for another two years.

Many of the forest management policies passed in the omnibus bill will improve the health of forests across the country. After a decade of efforts from conservation nonprofits, industry groups and dedicated lawmakers, the fire funding fix will help ensure the Forest Service and DOI can use their budgets as originally appropriated — to protect and manage our nation’s forests, public lands and natural resources for the benefit and enjoyment of all Americans.

More information about the forestry-related elements of the omnibus bill can be found in the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition’s post, Omnibus Policy Update.

Cecilia Clavet is a senior policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy’s U.S. Government Relations team. Credit: Erika Nortemann, The Nature Conservancy

Cecilia Clavet currently works as a senior policy advisor on fire and forest restoration for The Nature Conservancy’s U.S. Government Relations branch and the Restoring America’s Forests North America project. For the last three years, Cecilia’s work has been focused on USDA Forest Service issues, including forest restoration, wildfire suppression budgeting, biomass and appropriations. Previously, Cecilia served as the policy analyst for the Northeastern Area Association of State Foresters (NAASF), where she represented 21 Northeast, Midwest and Washington, D.C., state forestry directors and their agencies. Prior to NAASF, Cecilia worked on national forest issues for The Wilderness Society. Cecilia also co-founded and continues to lead the Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus, a coalition of diverse organizations focused on finding a comprehensive funding solution regarding the impacts of increasing suppression costs on non-fire programs. She holds degrees from the University of Maine and West Virginia University. She’s a member of the Society of American Foresters and Women in Government Relations and is a board member of the Audubon Naturalist Society. You may contact her by leaving a comment at the bottom of this post, or by emailing her at cclavet[at]tnc[dot]org.

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