SEATTLE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A deal in last week’s U.S. federal spending bill to fund wildfire fighting has drawn praise but also some concern over a provision relaxing rules on cutting trees in national forests.
The $1.3-trillion bill signed by President Donald Trump on Friday set up a contingency account for wildfire fighting funded with up to $2 billion a year for a decade.
Previously, the escalating costs of fighting worsening wildfires, especially in the western United States, has seen federal officials take money from budgets for other activities like maintaining campgrounds and trails.
“This will end the fire borrowing that we have seen that has prevented us from doing the kind of fuel reduction that we would like to see to protect our communities,” said Washington senator Maria Cantwell.
“And it will help us better manage the stewardship contracts and release the funds that should be going to recreation management within our forest,” she said.
A wide range of groups praised the so-called “fire funding fix” that became an increasingly pressing topic after last year’s devastating wildfire season - which hit California particularly hard - cost over $2 billion.
“The great bipartisan work on a fire funding fix shows what can happen when diverse constituents - from landowners to industry to conservationists - and a diverse coalition in Congress work together toward a common cause,” said Tom Martin, who heads the American Forest Foundation, in a statement.
The foundation is part of a coalition of over 100 recreation, timber, conservation, indigenous and hunting groups that pushed for the dedicated firefighting money.
But conservationists are concerned that the bill streamlines approval for local authorities and private landowners to fell trees on public land parcels smaller than 3,000 acres.
“National forest management should always be based on public input and sound science,” said Mike Anderson, senior policy analyst for the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group.
“We are concerned that some parts of the fire-funding deal will make it harder for the public to have a meaningful role in the decision-making process,” he said by email.
The relaxed regulation, known as a “categorical exclusion”, was welcomed by those on the frontlines of wildfire country.
“I’m in favor of the categorical exclusion as it pertains to improving defensible space and lessening the threat from forest fires hitting populated areas,” said Bob Roper, the retired Ventura County, California fire chief.
However, Roper told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it would take “a period of years” for the money to reach those on the ground and start making a difference.
Last year, the largest fire in California history scorched swaths of Ventura County.