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JOHNSON: Putting out the wildfire funding problem

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The Black Hills National Forest is a tremendous asset for South Dakota, but it also faces unprecedented challenges from the risk of wildfire and pine beetles.

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Managing our national forests and grasslands has become dramatically more difficult over the last decade, in large part because the increasing cost of fighting large wildfires nationwide is sapping limited resources from other programs that promote healthy forests. The federal government has an important role in responding to wildfires to protect both private property and the public resources important to our livelihoods, our water supplies and our recreational activities. I believe we need to pay for this responsibility in a different way than we do now that helps ensure we are not undercutting activities that are critical to the economy and quality of life in the Black Hills.

Under the current approach, annual wildfire suppression funding is based on an average of fire suppression costs over the previous 10 years. In active fire years, this funding level is inadequate, and land management agencies end up transferring funds from other agency programs to cover the additional costs. For example, in 2013 the Forest Service and other land management agencies transferred more than $630 million from other programs to respond to wildfire. In fact, these transfers for firefighting have been necessary in eight of the last 10 years.

This "fire borrowing" hurts vital activities, including hazardous fuels treatment that protect against fire and reduce fire suppression costs down the road. Other programs, such as timber production, recreation activities, wildlife management, range management and watershed management, have also suffered because of this funding approach. We simply must find a better way.

That is why I co-sponsored the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 (S. 1875) with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and others. This bill establishes a new approach to funding wildfire response that treats the largest 1 percent of wildfires as federal disasters and funds them similarly to other natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornados. I am pleased that President Barack Obama has included this new funding approach in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2015.

Under this new approach for funding wildfire suppression, the agencies would receive funds in their annual budget to respond to the fires that are a regular part of land management. The few major fires that consume more than 30 percent of firefighting costs would be paid for through the new disaster response funding.

I believe this new way of funding wildfire response is a sound approach to addressing an issue that is so important to the management of South Dakota's forests and grasslands. The time to act is now. I hope that members of both parties can come together around this bipartisan solution to deal with this critical problem and help our professional land managers restore South Dakota's and the nation's forests and grasslands for a productive, sustainable future.

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