More money may come to combat wildfire

Congressional bill includes $452 million for fuels reduction

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — Federal hazardous fuels reduction efforts will receive $150 million more than the Obama administration requested for 2014 in the $1.1 trillion spending bill that Congress is poised to pass this week.

The House of Representatives passed the omnibus spending bill easily Wednesday by a 359-67 margin, including “yes” votes from Oregon’s four Democratic representatives and Rep. Greg Walden, of Hood River, the delegation’s lone Republican. The Senate is expected to vote on the matter Friday.

The spending bill dictates how much each government department will receive in operational funding for 2014. It formalizes the budget agreement struck last year by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the chairs of the Senate and House budget committees.

The final spending allotments were negotiated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., who chair the appropriations committees.

In a prepared statement, Walden praised the spending package as a plan for reducing spending, growing the economy and making sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.

“This plan reduces spending below 2009 levels — below even what it was when President Obama took office,” he said. “This year will mark the first time since the Korean War that spending has been cut four years in a row — a total of $165 billion since 2010.”

Between the Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior, the budget contains $3.9 billion in wildfire suppression and prevention. This amount funds fire services at the 10-year average, and backfills money borrowed from other Forest Service accounts to pay for fire suppression last year. The budget for hazardous fuel reduction was set at $452 million, more than $150 million higher than the Obama administration asked for in its 2014 budget.

The Forest Service receives $306 million in 2014 for reducing hazardous fuels, a slight reduction from its $317 million in 2013, but far higher than the administration’s $201 million request. The remaining $145 million-plus goes to the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees more than two million acres of federal forests in Western Oregon.

Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley became a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee in January 2013. Thanks to the Murray-Ryan budget deal, Mikulski set funding limits for each subcommittee chair to in turn set funding for agencies and programs.

Merkley said the cardinals — as appropriations subcommittee chairs are known in Washington slang, after the religious authorities — were very open to his one-on-one lobbying on behalf of Oregon priorities. While he was pleased with the increase in funding for hazardous fuels reduction, he wished it could be more.

A draft report by the Department of Energy on changing climate and weather patterns paints a grim future for western forests, he said. Droughts and increased pine beetle activity put greater stress on trees, making them more likely to die and more susceptible to lightning strikes, which are also predicted to increase.

“Our western forests will be substantially degraded in the short term and devastated by the end of the century,” which makes hazardous fuel reduction even more critical, he said.

Merkley said he was also pleased with funding levels for several education programs. The early education program Head Start will receive $8.6 billion, an increase of more than $1 billion from 2013 levels, while Title I funding, which goes to fund low-income students, receives an increase of $629 million over 2013 levels.

While the Obama administration has favored “Race to the Top” competitions for fundings, rural Oregon schools told Merkley that without the money for a full-time grant writer, they felt they were at a disadvantage in securing funds. The additional education funds should alleviate some of that pressure, he said.

Merkley also applauded the inclusion of funding for the Yellow Ribbon reintegration program, which helps returning veterans and their families adjust to life back home after deployment. While the administration wanted to “zero out” the program, or defund it completely, Merkley said $13 million in 2014 funding was vital for helping returning veterans assimilate back to civilian life so “the ghosts of war” don’t set in.

The Murray-Ryan budget deal angered veterans groups by cutting the cost-of-living increase for benefits of military retirees younger than 62 by 1 percent. While the spending bill doesn’t remove this change completely, it will no longer apply to families of a military member killed in action or disabled veterans, Merkley said.

Merkley said he is “deeply frustrated and offended” that veterans’ benefits have been reduced as a cost-cutting measure, and he hopes to roll back the cost-of-living decrease before it goes into effect in two years.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com