Tester: Federal spending bill expected to fund firefighting costs, restore payments to counties

by Missoula Current, Martin Kidston

Provisions included a $1.3 trillion appropriations bill making its way through Congress would restore payments to timbered counties across Montana and establish a separate account from which the U.S. Forest Service can fund costs of fighting wildfires, according to Sen. Jon Tester.

It did not, however, include the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act sought by Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte as part of a push to prevent mining on 30,000 acres of public land located north of the national park.

“Any moment now, we’re going to get our hands on a bill that funds the federal government through the end of the fiscal year,” Tester said in a media call Wednesday morning. “I’ve been told we were able to get a few important Montana provisions into this funding bill.”

Among other things, Tester said, the 2018 omnibus bill includes funding for Operation Stone Garden, which provides money to state and local law enforcement who work with federal agencies to secure the nation’s borders, including those on Montana’s Hi-Line.

It also includes funding for local police departments that patrol U.S airports and helps local fire departments cover equipment and training costs, Tester said.

Wildfire finding is also expected to land in the mammoth bill.

“We were able to strike a deal that changes the way we pay to fight wildfires,” Tester said. “For years, the Forest Service has seen its budget ravaged by growing wildfire costs. These costs drain resources needed to build and maintain trails, conduct research and cut a few trees for more fire mitigation.”

That “death spiral,” as Tester put it, has forced the Forest Service to steel money from other funds to pay for firefighting costs, which have risen dramatically in recent years to represent more than 50 percent of the agency’s total budget.

While Congress appropriates money to help the Forest Service with other management issues, that money is often diverted to firefighting efforts, which prevents the agency from doing proactive forest management.

“This wildfire funding fix in the omnibus should address this borrowing practice, and the Forest Service will now fund catastrophic wildfires the same we do other natural disasters,” Tester said. “This is a huge step forward. This important wildfire funding fix will allow us to better manage our forests.”

The 2017 fire season was the most expensive ever, Tester said. More than 1.2 million acres burned in Montana alone – a story repeated across the West. The cost of fighting those fires “trashed the Forest Service budget,” mandating the fix expected in Wednesday’s bill.

“Now, instead of taking it out of the Forest Service budget, we’re taking it from a separate fund, the same kind of fund we use to manage earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes and hurricanes,” Tester said. “It keeps the Forest Service budget whole, and they can continue to do the management that needs to be done in the forest.”

While the bill address fire costs, it won’t include protections for 30,000 acres north of Yellowstone National Park, despite the support of Tester and Gianforte.

Both lawmakers sent letters to House and Senate leadership last week asking them to include the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act in the 2018 spending bill.

“I fought hard to get this into the omnibus, and if Sen. (Steve) Daises had been on this bill, we would have gotten it done,” Tester said. “But with one of the members of the delegation being out, we couldn’t get it in.”