Last week, the nation’s eyes were on the FY 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Act and rightly so. It was a financial Goliath, weighing in at $1.3 trillion.

The package included much-needed financial boosts to agencies including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was also funded in the bill at $8.1 billion, equal to the current funding level, despite White House calls to reduce funding by more than a third. That amount includes $2.9 billion for the Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving funds and $1.15 billion for the Superfund program.

A Fire Funding Fix

The 2018 omnibus is also a game changer for future fire funding in Idaho and across the West. This is an issue that Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) has spearheaded for many years.

Starting in 2020, funding for wildfires will be stabilized without further eroding the U.S. Forest Service and other agency budgets. More than $20 billion will be set aside over 10 years to allow the Forest Service and other federal agencies to end a practice of raiding non-fire-related accounts to pay for wildfire costs, which approached $3 billion last year alone.

Here’s how it will work: In years that wildfire suppression costs are very high, a budget cap adjustment will be used to fund a new account that will receive an extra $2.3 to $3.0 billion each year. This money will only be used after funds from usual firefighting accounts are spent. Previously, money was taken from unrelated accounts during particularly bad fire seasons, resulting budget shortfalls for other critical public land management activities, such as trails, recreation infrastructure, monitoring, restoration and even management

The Act also locks in the 10-year average of fire suppression costs at the 2015 level. This matters because Congress directs the Forest Service to fund fire programs at the 10-year average cost. While Forest Service budgets are shrinking, fire suppression costs keep increasing. The result has been a recipe for gravely underfunded programs across the agency.

This second provision will be integral to addressing fire funding overall – but moving forward, the need remains for Congress to provide adequate funding to the Forest Service.

Looking Forward to Forest Management

In addition to a comprehensive fire-funding fix, the Act also includes a number of forest management reforms.

  1. Creation of a Categorical Exclusion (CE). This category allows certain projects that contribute to wildfire resilience on public lands to be excluded from the standard environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). To qualify, projects must meet the following criteria:
    1. Be limited to projects up to 3,000 acres in size
    2.  Maximize retention of old growth and large trees
    3. Consider best available science to maintain and restore ecological integrity
    4. Be developed collaboratively or through a Resource Advisory Committee
    5. Not include permanent road construction
    6. Require decommissioning of temporary roads
    7. Be located within state-identified insect and disease treatment areas
    8. Be located outside wilderness and other legally protected areas
    9. Require public notice and scoping.
  2. Healthy Forest Restoration Act inclusion of Fire and Fuel Breaks. This appends the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 (HFRA) to include fuel breaks and firebreaks in the definition of "authorized hazardous fuel reduction project.” It also limits the number of alternatives that must be considered during environmental analysis of projects that include fuel breaks or firebreaks.
  3. Boosting Stewardship Contracting. The Act authorizes the Forest Service and BLM to issue stewardship contracts with a term of up to 20 years in fire-prone areas, doubling the 10-year limit on stewardship contracts under current law.
  4. Fire Hazard Mapping Initiative. There is a new requirement for the Forest Service to produce maps showing wildfire hazard severity and to share the information with at-risk communities.
  5. Good Neighbor Authority.  The Act expands the Good Neighbor Authority (provided by the 2014 Farm Bill) by allowing state agencies to repair or reconstruct roads as part of a GNA project, and to decommission roads that the Forest Service has determined to be unneeded through its travel analysis process.

ICL will be working closely with the Forest Service and collaborative efforts across the state to ensure that new fuels reduction and forest management tools are used appropriately, to protect and restore our public forests.