Sen. John Thune
South Dakota is no stranger to wildfires. In fact, while we’re technically still in the offseason, it was only a few months ago that the Legion Fire scorched tens of thousands of acres in Custer State Park and forced numerous home evacuations in the area. Thankfully, no one was injured. It was a good reminder, though, that there’s no offseason when it comes to discussing ways to reduce the risk of future wildfire incidents, which is a good thing for the land, property owners, and local communities that often face the brunt of the damage and clean-up.
Congress recently took an important step in that direction. Included in a newly enacted law, which I supported in the Senate, was a package of proposals that will take a significant financial burden off of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), one of the primary federal agencies that’s often tasked with both battling forest fires and helping to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Until this new bill was signed into law, wildfires weren’t treated the same as other natural disasters, like hurricanes. In those cases, dedicated federal funds were set aside to help with rescue operations and the subsequent clean-up. In bad wildfire years, like 2017, for example, the USFS was forced to use money that was set aside for other purposes, like tools for fire mitigation, to instead fight wildfires across the country. Every dollar intended for forest maintenance that’s spent battling a blaze is a dollar that isn’t being spent on future preventative measures.
Thanks to the change in the law, fire-borrowing (using previously allocated funds for unrelated fire suppression costs) will now be a thing of the past. A new contingency account will be established so the USFS can more efficiently prioritize its annual funding without having to worry about the uncertainty that can be created in bad wildfire years.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the USFS, hailed the new law, saying, “Improving the way we fund wildfire suppression will help us better manage our forests. If we ensure that we have adequate resources for forest management, we can mitigate the frequency of wildfires and severity of future fire seasons.”
I’ve also introduced a handful of bills over the last few years – including the Prescribed Burn Approval Act, which was signed into law in 2016 – that would help with wildfire prevention and federal forest service management. Last August, I introduced the Forest Service Management Improvement Act. It would make several improvements to the forestry title of the farm bill by increasing the effectiveness of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act and improving the National Environmental Policy Act, which would help simplify and streamline federal forest management.Several of these provisions were included in another bill, the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act, which I cosponsored last fall with fellow senators from western and Great Plains states. While it’s still awaiting action in the Senate, I’m glad to see we’re already making good progress on reducing wildfire risk in other areas – an issue that I will continue to work with my colleagues, federal agencies, and landowners to strengthen.