Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon doesn’t mince words when it comes to wildfire management, and who should pay the bill.
He uses terms such as “discombobulated” and “dysfunctional” to describe the budgeting process and rails about twisted priorities.
That’s pointed language coming from a Democrat. And in this case, he’s working with Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch in trying to fix a broken funding and management system.
Stop here for a moment. We’re seeing a Democrat working with two Republicans on legislation for the common good of their region. There’s no talk about presidential politics, party control of Congress or gridlock on Capitol Hill. There’s no angling to take political credit for accomplishments – just three senators trying to find a sensible solution to an awful problem.
This isn’t the first time Wyden has worked across the aisle. Years ago, he was standing with then-Sen. Larry Craig in putting together the Craig-Wyden Act, to give a boost to rural counties with declining timber harvests. Now he’s working with the Idaho senators in the effort to convince colleagues that wildfires are just as devastating as any other natural disaster, and therefore should be paid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The fiscal impact of the budgetary adjustment is “zero.” The federal government pays for putting out wildfires anyway; issue is who should pay for it.
As it stands, the U.S. Forest Service gets the bill for putting out wildfires and it takes away from the Forest Service’s efforts to prevent fires from happening in the first place. It also takes away from the agency’s ability to work with groups, such as the Culdesac-based North-Central Idaho Wildfire Restoration Group, which has formed an alliance with soil conservation districts and elected officials throughout the region to identify – and fix – areas that are vulnerable to fires. The group is chaired by Steve Becker of Genesee.
“One percent of all fires represent about 30 percent of the cost of fighting fires. These are the catastrophic fires and they are disasters just as much as a hurricane, flood or tidal wave,” Crapo says.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Risch said. “The problem is convincing colleagues in the east, where only a fraction of their states are owned by the public sector. They jealously guard the FEMA funds.”
Enter Wyden, who has the respect – and ear – of East Coast Democrats, whose definition of a national forest is Central Park in New York City. Wyden sees a ray of hope on this one. He’s heard Sen. Chuck Shumer, who lives in Brooklyn, complaining about how fighting fires takes away from the Forest Service’s ability to provide materials to help the baseball bat industry in upstate New York. Wyden says Shumer and other fellow Democrats are starting to see the economic picture.
“I think after years of bitter debate on this issue, we just may have found the sweet spot to finally getting this resolved,” Wyden said, who adds a bit of humor to his pitch. “There’s a rumor that there’s an election coming up. If that rumor is confirmable, then some people are going to want to show results. In the rural parts of the west, this issue is at the top of the list.”
He uses harsher words to describe the budgeting process than rankles western lawmakers.
“Again and again, the three of us have pointed out the cost to the rural west and to America for this broken, dysfunctional mess of a budget,” Wyden said. “We need to go about fixing a distorted set of budget priorities. Once you throw your priorities out of whack, the dominos start falling in the wrong direction.”
One quick fix, he said, is to allow the Forest Service to focus efforts on land management rather than becoming the fire-fighting agency.“One thing I’ve learned about serving in government over the years is, if you have one dollar in your pocket, then use it for prevention,” Wyden said.
Crapo, Risch and Wyden are a long way from claiming victory on this budgetary issue, but hats off to them for trying. It would be nice if more congressional business could be conducted in this fashion.