Elk NetworkCongress Approves Fire Funding Solution and Forest Management Reforms

Conservation | March 23, 2018

RMEF has encouraged Congress for several years to find a better way to fund firefighting efforts on federal lands and enact forest management reforms so agencies can accomplish wildlife habitat projects. Congress finally came through, in the form of provisions included in the Fiscal Year 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that was passed on March 22 and signed into law by President Trump on March 23.

The U.S. Forest Service currently spends over half its budget on wildland fires and was projected to devote 2/3 of its budget on fire by 2025. The agency routinely borrows from other program funds to pay for fire suppression, leaving few resources for its other responsibilities, including timber, research, recreation, habitat conservation and infrastructure.

The Forest Service and Interior Department agencies have also been forced to spend significant resources on litigation. They were forced to pay over $16 million in fees last year alone to attorneys suing the agencies on frivolous lawsuits.

RMEF President & CEO Nancy Holland recognized Congress for passing legislation to help address these issues. “Spending on wildland fire fighting and litigation continues to impact the ability of federal land management agencies to address their forest health, recreation, research and infrastructure responsibilities. The FY18 Omnibus appropriations bill will help agencies make significant progress on fire funding and forest management challenges. We look forward to working with Congress on additional measures to ensure agencies can implement active forest management projects to enhance wildlife habitat.”

The Omnibus bill’s key components include:

Fire Funding – The bill sets aside $2 billion per year, outside the regular budget, as a disaster relief budget line item to be used when firefighting costs exceed regular budgets.

Forest Management – A categorical exclusion (expedited environmental review process) was created for collaborative forest landscape projects to help agencies implement forest health projects in the wildland-urban interface and high fire hazard areas. The bill extends stewardship contracting authority from 10 to 20 years, allowing communities and private companies to work with agencies on long-term projects to benefit habitat and mitigate fire. A temporary solution was included to reverse the impacts of the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center decision that required agencies to go through a lengthy and costly endangered species consultation process for nearly all projects—even those with no ground disturbance. The bill provides a five year exemption from that process for projects proposed in areas with updated land management plans. The successful Good Neighbor Authority program was also amended to allow road maintenance and repair. Finally, the Federal Lands Transfer and Facilitation Act was reauthorized to sanction strategic federal land sales to provide funding for high-priority land conservation projects and also prioritize acquisition of lands to provide access for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting.

Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) – This program, which funds critical habitat conservation and recreational access projects throughout the country, received an increase in funding from $400 million in 2017 to $425 million this year. However, it was not reauthorized and expires at the end of September. We look forward to working with Congress this year to advance LWCF reauthorization legislation.

All of these measures are very important for RMEF’s mission to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage. However, many other critical issues remain before Congress. We will continue to advocate for progress on the following concerns.

  • We believe the Bureau of Land Management should be authorized to exercise lethal and sterilization management options to address overpopulation of wild horses and burros on federal lands.
  • LWCF must be permanently reauthorized.
  • Legislation is necessary to make the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to remove gray wolves from listing under the Endangered Species Act no longer subject to judicial review.
  • We support designation of federal resources to help states control the spread of chronic wasting disease in ungulates.

RMEF encourages its members to contact their representatives and senators to request action on these issues.