Wisconsin could feel effects of Western fires

Guest column by Mary Jean Huston, Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin State Director, published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on June 27, 2014.

June 27, 2014

The Western United States is bracing for another long, hot wildfire season with more and bigger fires and the increased costs and risks associated with protecting lives and property.

While those big Western fires seem somewhat remote, they actually have a big impact on public and private lands here in Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest. One of the biggest impacts could be the loss of funding for projects that help reduce mega-fire risk and future wildfire suppression costs here in Wisconsin and throughout the U.S.

Fighting big fires is expensive, and when federal wildfire suppression funds are depleted, the shortfall is made up by taking money from other U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) programs across the country - including those here in Wisconsin. From trailheads to timber projects, national parks, forests and refuges across the country risk losing funding to cover firefighting overruns.

The DOI and USFS have had to pull money from other programs to cover fire suppression shortfalls eight times since 2000. In the last two years, more than $1 billion was transferred to cover these shortfalls. These transfers are crippling the agencies' ability to manage forests effectively for people, water and wildlife.

In the Eastern Region of the USFS, of which Wisconsin is a part, approximately 56 million board feet of timber in FY2013 and beyond did not make it to market due to the transfer of fund to fight wildfire.

Here in Wisconsin, the transfers can have future impacts on recreation and forest restoration programs in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and the Necedah, Horicon and Fox River national wildlife refuges. Even programs for clean water and air are affected by these transfers.

Now there is a bipartisan proposal to fix this problem, one that is supported by a broad spectrum of timber, sportsmen, recreation, conservation, tribal, ranching and employer groups.

The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) would, for the first time, develop a wildfire emergency funding process for the USFS and DOI similar to those used for other natural disaster emergencies. Currently, no other federal entities are forced to fund disaster response within their discretionary budgets.

Under the proposed act, a portion of USFS and DOI wildfire suppression would be funded through a budget cap adjustment similar to that currently used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for other natural disasters.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would create a stable budget that will significantly reduce the need for agencies to transfer funds from the Forest Legacy Program – which keeps Wisconsin's forests managed in timber production - Urban and Community Forestry and other programs that make these lands accessible to the public for recreation. And it would do this while still adhering to the Budget Control Act.

Though far from home, wildfires in the West can have a big impact on Wisconsin. We should urge our senators and representatives in Congress to support the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

It will ensure that the funds needed to fight mega-fires wherever they occur will be available without crippling management of the national forests and refuges in Wisconsin and other states that provide clean water, forest products, habitat for wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities.

Mary Jean Huston is director of The Nature Conservancy in Madison.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at www.nature.org. To learn about the Conservancy’s global initiatives, visit www.nature.org/global. To keep up with current Conservancy news, follow @nature_press on Twitter.

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