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Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden says sufficiently funding the U.S. Forest Service is one of his top priorities as a member of the energy bill conference committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden says sufficiently funding the U.S. Forest Service is one of his top priorities as a member of the energy bill conference committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

With the Senate voting this week to conference with the House on its energy policy overhaul bill, lawmakers from both chambers are eyeing the conference process as a perfect opportunity to get in place what many say is a needed revamp of how the federal government budgets for its efforts to prevent and fight forest fires.  

The House’s legislative package for its energy bill (HR 8) includes measures it passed in 2015 that would ease environmental restrictions related to federal and tribal forest thinning efforts. The Obama administration said it “strongly opposes” the bill (HR 2647) in a statement of administration policy. But some lawmakers say the measure could become less toxic if it included an alternative to a Forest Service practice called “fire borrowing.”  

That happens when the agency runs out of fire suppression appropriations because of the scale of current threats and has to take from other programs under its purview, such as pre-emptive efforts including controlled burns and forest thinning, and Sen. Ron Wyden tells Roll Call that ending the practice by sufficiently funding the agency is one of his top priorities as a member of the energy bill conference committee.  

The Oregon Democrat tried to attach an amendment to the Senate’s energy bill (S 2012) to prevent the practice, but it did not get enough support to be adopted.  

“I am going to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to jump-start the low-carbon economy, and then obviously I am going to work with my colleagues in a bipartisan way to finally end fire borrowing, which is a horrendously inefficient system of fighting fires,” Wyden said.  

The Oregon senator also co-sponsored, along with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, draft legislation to overhaul the federal approach to wildfires, although the administration still has reservations about that proposal.  

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop indicated that the energy conference could represent one of the best chances to get something done this year on wildfires.  

“Once the conference starts, anything is doable,” the Utah Republican said. “To lose this opportunity would be a tremendous mistake on everybody’s part.”  

Bishop added that the U.S. is “losing a hell of a lot of money every year” and that the federal government is “causing our forests to be in worse shape because we are not willing to address the core problem of not only how we fight the fires but also why they are so prevalent now.”  

The U.S. Forest Service spent over half of its appropriated budget on wildfire suppression efforts. The Forest Service announced it had spent $1.7 billion in 2015 to combat the fires, the most in the agency’s history.  

The fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill increased funding for wildfire suppression, totaling $1.63 billion in appropriations, 60 percent more than fiscal 2015 enacted levels.  

The boost was meant to give the Forest Service a cushion to prevent it from having to transfer funds from other parts of its budget to fight fires while lawmakers come up with legislation to address how those funds are used.  

Bishop, along with Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan gave assurances to Senate Democrats that House Republicans wanted to come up with a bill that President Barack Obama would sign into law. Democrats had concerns about conferencing with the House on its partisan legislative package.

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