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Lisa M.
Republican AK

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  • Wildfire Provisions in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill

    by Senator Lisa Murkowski

    Posted on 2015-12-16

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    Read More about Wildfire Provisions in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill

    MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, most of us are busy today reviewing the contents of the Omnibus appropriations bill that was released late last night--actually, early this morning. I come to the floor this afternoon with my colleague from Washington, the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to speak about the wildfire provisions. More specifically, I am here to explain why Congress chose not to accept a flawed proposal from the administration and really, I think, to be here to give hope and optimism about a path forward for next year.

    I think it goes without saying that our Nation's wildfire epidemic is a serious challenge that demands attention from each one of us. Each year the wildfire season seems to include new ``worsts'' and shattered records, and 2015 has been particularly devastating. It seems as though we didn't have a wildfire season; we've had a wildfire year. We all know that we have seen too much acreage burn, too many western communities have suffered damage, and, tragically, lives have been lost.

    According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 9.4 million acres of our country had burned through October 30 of this year. In Alaska, where most of these fires occur, we lost over 5 million acres during this period. For perspective, that is about the size of the State of Connecticut. That is what we saw burn in Alaska alone this year.

    Those of us whose States are impacted by wildfire started this year in agreement that the way wildfire management has been funded is broken; and that it is past time we fix it. We know we can't continue to underfund fire suppression, only then to scramble to borrow money to fight fires--and all this while the fires are many times burning out of control. We know that we need to end this very disruptive and unsustainable cycle of fire borrowing, which drains funds from other programs as agencies desperately seek resources. I think this fire borrowing concept is one area where we have all been able to come together, whether it is those within the agencies or those of us looking to address policy, the appropriators. We have to figure out how we are going to stop the fire borrowing that goes on within the various accounts in an effort to respond to these wildfires.

    Earlier this year, as the chairman of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, I set out to fix this very broken system. Under my direction, our committee reported a bill to do just that. The Interior appropriations bill included a permanent, fiscally responsible fix for fire borrowing. It would have provided resources to the agencies up front--enough funding to fully cover the average annual cost of firefighting over the past 10 years--while allowing for a limited cap adjustment in have truly catastrophic fire [[Page S8721]] years. The bill simultaneously increased funding for fire prevention efforts and took steps also to return to active forest management.

    We thought this was not only a sound approach to address the fire borrowing but also the forest management issues that so many of us are concerned about. Unfortunately, we ran into a wall with the House of Representatives. They wouldn't accept the language because of its limited cap adjustment. Instead, we worked across Chambers within the Appropriations Committee to provide an unprecedented level of funding to address wildfire in this omnibus.

    As I said, I am still going through the omnibus myself and trying to figure out whether to support the overall bill. But I do think it is important to recognize and understand what we have included in this omnibus. The wildfire provisions are both responsible and pragmatic. It provides real money, right now and gives us the time to develop long term real solutions. The bill includes $1.6 billion for fire suppression, which is $600 million over the average cost of fighting wildfires over the past 10 years. It also includes $545 million for hazardous fuels reduction, and it includes $360 million for the Forest Service's timber program, which will help us resume the active management of our forests.

    What we have in this omnibus bill is more funding for wildfires than was spent during the 2015 fire season--and, again, that was one of the most expensive fire seasons in history. When we think about what we have done, barring a truly record-setting fire season in 2016, fire borrowing should not be an issue for us the rest of this fiscal year. We did this the right way--the way that Congress should deal with the government's responsibilities--by making cuts elsewhere to pay for this within the budget. Again, this is real money. This is money that will be available immediately because we have done this through the appropriations process.

    We have had many conversations--Senator Cantwell and I and many in this body--with Members who were hoping to see a different proposal. The House had a proposal, colleagues here in the Senate had a proposal, and the administration had a proposal. They were hoping it could be factored into the omnibus, but for a number of reasons it was not included within the bill.

    The administration's proposal would have amended the Stafford Act to expand the purposes for emergency funding for major disasters to include fighting wildfires on Federal lands. The House included a similar idea in a forestry bill it passed earlier in the year. The irony here is that the Administration came out very strongly against this back in July, just a few months ago. The President's advisers issued a Statement of Administration Policy objecting to the repurposing of the Stafford Act and the use of the Disaster Relief Fund for wildfire suppression operations.

    In September, the director of FEMA wrote an opinion piece about this. He said that tapping the Disaster Relief Fund for wildfires would ``undermine the federal government's ability to budget for and fund responses to disasters, as well as to finance state and tribal public infrastructure recovery projects.'' The Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the head of the Office of Management and Budget echoed that concern in a letter where they said, ``We do not believe that Congress should modify the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act as a means to address the escalating costs of wildfire.'' Yet here we are just a few months later, and the administration is now proposing to amend the Stafford Act. And after reviewing the proposal, it appears to be nothing more than a work-around that still has serious problems.

    I think the first important reminder is that the Stafford Act itself is designed to provide Federal assistance to State, local, and tribal governments to alleviate disaster suffering and facilitate recovery after a disaster has occurred. There is no precedent for accessing it to provide emergency money for disasters on Federal lands.

    The second concern we have is that this proposal doesn't actually end fire borrowing. What it does is create an account that is separate from the Disaster Relief Fund that is subject to appropriations, which means that it is now empty. That fund may be there, but there is nothing in it, and it could remain empty. There is no guarantee that appropriators will fund the account or that the President will ever request funds for it. And if there are no funds in the account, then basically what we have to assume is that the agencies are going to have to borrow again. So we haven't fixed the borrowing.

    We have an average of 68,000 fires each year. Under this proposal, each one could require a separate Presidential declaration once the initial appropriations run out. So we have to ask the question: How does this actually work? Does the Forest Service Chief have to estimate how much each fire is going to cost? What happens in the meantime while you have all these fires burning? Again, the agencies are going to be in a situation where they are going to be forced to fire borrow.

    Even if we assume that Federal dollars will be appropriated to the fund envisioned by this proposal and that the President will make disaster declarations after he is asked to do so by Cabinet officials, we are still setting another troubling precedent. The administration will effectively be able to decide to give itself money under the Stafford Act. This is not like giving an individual money after they have suffered a disaster, a loss to their home or property; this is the administration being able to decide to give itself money. So the question is, is this really something that we want to do? Finally, I think this proposal is a missed opportunity. It was supposed to be coupled with a set of productive forest management reforms. What we saw is a good start. There are forest reforms in there but there is not very much in this to get excited about for Alaska, where we have both a wildfire problem and a timber problem. The proposal also does too little to help our firefighters or our communities which are at physical risk from wildfires and economic risk from restrictions on timber harvesting.

    I am certainly not alone in this. Again, Senator Cantwell has spoken very passionately on this issue--not only in committee but here on the floor. I am going to yield to her in just a moment.

    We heard from a representative from the International Association of Fire Chiefs, who said that ``due to the rapidly rising cost of wildland fire suppression, IAFC [the International Association of Fire Chiefs] is concerned that the [Disaster Relief Fund] could run out of money as it is also used to address hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other emergencies.'' We have also heard from a nonprofit organization called Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Their letter to congressional leaders observes that ``allowing agencies to declare wildfires as disasters simply to access near-unlimited funding for suppression will undermine efforts that have been long in the making to shift agencies toward alternative proactive strategies in fire preparedness and planning, fuels reduction and forest restoration.'' I want to find a solution to the fire-budgeting problem as much as anyone in this Chamber, but the proposal that surfaced during budget negotiations was not the right way to go. It was not developed in the open and transparent manner that we would hope, and it has not been fully vetted. It has drawn opposition not only from Members here but from outside groups whose members are on the ground actually fighting these fires. So the only solution was to do what we have done, which is fully fund firefighting within the budget that we were given.

    The omnibus is our path forward on wildfire funding for this year. It devotes greater resources to fire prevention and hazardous fuels reduction and contains real money--not an empty account--that will be available immediately. We can use the window it provides to develop long-term solutions.

    This is where I want to give encouragement to other Members. I am committed, as I know that Senator Cantwell is, to working to address the longer term solutions to these issues. I am here today to affirm that wildfire management legislation will be a top priority for those of us on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year.

    [[Page S8722]] I know we come at this from different perspectives, but that is OK. Let's bring our different perspectives and work collaboratively with all Members to develop a commonsense bill that properly addresses the challenges and concerns that Senator Cantwell has articulated when it comes to active forest management, how we deal with our hazardous fuels, and how we work on the front end to prevent these catastrophic fires. We need to be working together toward these solutions, and I certainly make that commitment with my ranking member to advance early on in the New Year these provisions that I think will make a difference.

    I know Senator Cantwell wants to be part of the solution here and she has played a great part as we have worked together to craft a solution in the committee. With that, I know that from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee perspective, we have a lot on our plate. But I think that from my perspective as a Senator from Alaska, this is an issue that the people in my State feel very passionately about.

    I will ask Senator Cantwell, as we deal with the pressing issues that are before us, is this an area where we can come together as an energy committee to address these very immediate concerns? The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Washington.

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