Left in Limbo

John Todd's picture

Congress's inaction threatens Montana way of life.

Last week, news began to leak that an agreement to end what’s known as fire borrowing was starting to crumble. At the same time, we learned Congress was, yet again, missing an opportunity to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which expired in September.

Montana Wilderness Association, Wildlife
Haze from a wildlife obscures the view over the Big Belts

When the dust settled on a legislative agreement that became part of the fiscal 2016 omnibus package, a solution for the nation’s wildfire funding problem had indeed been slashed. And Congress left the future of LWCF uncertain, reauthorizing this incredibly popular program for a mere three years and for a fraction of the non-taxpayer funding that the program should be receiving. LWCF is authorized for up to $900 million a year, but received a paltry and disappointing $450 million for FY16. Now Congress has adjourned, closing the books on 2015 without remedying our fire budget crisis or doing what it should for a program that is essential to Montana’s outdoor way of life.

LWCF is a bipartisan program that takes royalties from oil and gas development and channels it toward cities and states to help them conserve irreplaceable lands, build city parks, improve outdoor recreation opportunities, and provide access to fishing, hunting, and hiking areas. Montana has benefited from this program perhaps more than any other state – to the tune of $540 million over the past five decades. That money has helped build trails across the state, secure more than 70% of our fishing access sites, and supported conservation easements along the Rocky Mountain Front, in the Gallatin Range, and in countless other iconic places throughout the state.

Hyalite Reservoir, Gallatin Range
Views like this, brought to you by the LWCF

We thank our congressional delegation, especially Sen. Jon Tester, for leading the charge on reauthorization and funding for LWCF, but remain disappointed that Congress so widely missed the mark on what should have been a no-brainer. Unfortunately, hyper-partisan politics got in the way of common sense, as it did with fixing our wildfire funding crisis.

For the first time in the history of the U.S. Forest Service, the cost of fighting wildfires has burned through more than half of the agency’s budget – $1.5 billion, or 52%. In another ten years, it’s predicted that wildfires will consume two-thirds of the agency’s operating budget. That means while over half of the Forest Service budget is siphoned to fight an ever-increasing number of fires across the West, it leaves agency officials with dwindling resources to accomplish projects on our national forests that protect our communities and support our outdoor way of life here at home.

In Montana, the cost of fighting wildfires is not simply a line in the budget. Project after project is being scrapped to make room for the resources fire fighters need to keep our communities safe. When the smoke clears after another fire season, you only need to look as far as your favorite hiking trail, your family’s go-to campground, or your favorite backcountry stream to understand the consequences for our outdoor heritage if a funding fix is not found.

In 2015 alone, dozens of projects here in Montana were cancelled as the Forest Service scrambled to make room in their budget to provide the resources and tools necessary to those fighting wildfires. In the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, westslope cutthroat trout will not be restored in over 25 miles of streams. In a popular Bitterroot campground, a contaminated water system won’t be replaced. And in the Flathead, hundreds and hundreds of acres of noxious weeds will go untreated for another year. The list goes on.

Montana Wildfire, Montana Wilderness Association
Scenes like this leave us wondering what next summer's fires could bring

Everyone can agree we must reform how we pay for extreme wildfire seasons. Though the problem seems complex, the solution is simple: fund firefighting the same way we fund other natural disasters. That solution is one of the most bi-partisan bills in Congress – the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA). Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle support the bill, including Montana’s entire Congressional delegation. Ultimately, the most recent deal crumbled, in part, because a handful of conservative senators chose to play politics with the issue and decided to side with a few radical congressmen in the House.

“We’re not prepared to support a funding-only approach,” huffed Rob Bishop, Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. By this, Rep. Bishop meant that he wasn’t willing to leave a good idea well enough alone. He wanted to pile on more controversial measures to reform the way our national forests are managed, and these provisions eventually prevented a deal from getting done.

Our communities and our outdoor way of life depend on this bill passing. We urge our delegation to focus their attention on passing the WDFA in the New Year without complicating the conversation with other policy questions. 

John Todd is the conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association. This article orginially appeared on wildmontana.org.

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