On November 20, 2017, the Senate Appropriations Committee released the FY2018 Interior and Environment appropriations bill. If passed, the bill would provide funding for the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and related agencies.
The Senate approach would fund wildfire suppression at the 10-year average, $3.6 billion, plus an emergency buffer of $507 million. This is the same funding structure that was in place for 2017, when the emergency buffer ended up being insufficient by hundreds of millions of dollars to cover the costs of wildfire suppression. Also included in bill language is a fire cap adjustment that would make fire suppression expenditures above 100 percent of the 10-year average eligible for disaster assistance.
The total funding for the U.S. Forest Service is $5.8 billion, including the $3.6 billion for wildfire suppression. The bill contains $12.17 billion overall for the Interior Department, including $465 million for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program. In addition the bill funds the EPA at $7.91 billion including $2.26 billion for Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds and $30 million for the Water Infrastructure Finance Act program.
The bill made headlines for proposing $150 million in cuts to the EPA but also received criticism from western senators who were unsatisfied by the fire funding proposal to end the budgetary practice known as “fire borrowing.” Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) argue the bill fails to reform the broken system of funding and Senator Merkley points out that the U.S. Forest Service’s emergency buffer is insufficient for covering the costs of wildfires in years with severe fire seasons.
Senators Wyden and Merkley urge Congress to pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to direct Federal Emergency Management Agency to treat wildfire funding similarly to other natural disasters. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act currently enjoys 13 co-sponsors and is one of several forestry reform proposals under consideration in Congress; however lawmakers insist that a stand-alone legislative solution for wildfire funding is unlikely.
House and Senate Appropriators are indicating they do not have enough time to negotiate a final budget deal and to avoid a government shutdown on December 8th. As such, Congress is expected to pass a Continuing Resolution that will extend their effective deadline to December 22nd.