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Columbus Fire on I90

Helicopters drop water on the wildfire that burned toward Interstate 90 near Columbus on July 30, 2017.

The 2017 wildfire season was the most expensive ever, and many members of Congress want to ensure money is always accessible for the U.S. Forest Service to fight blazes.

Montana Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines hopes to change the Forest Service funding mechanism of “fire borrowing.” The senator wants to package funding reform with policy changes, but some say the shifts could weaken environmental protections.

When the Forest Service dips into other funds to pay for firefighting, it takes away money from forest management and other projects, the agency said in a statement.

“We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a national press release. “It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on.”

In Montana, at least 1.3 million acres burned during the 2017 fire season. 

Across the country, about 10 million acres went up in flames, the second-highest during a fire season since 1960, according to National Interagency Fire Center records. About a quarter of the acres were on National Forest land, and the agency spent a record $2.4 billion fighting forest fires and assisting with other fires.

The costs exhausted the firefighting budget and forced the Forest Service to borrow money from other accounts to keep battling blazes until Congress could reimburse the agency.

Between 1995 and 2015, firefighting costs grew from less than a quarter of the agency’s budget to more than half, a report said. And again, in 2017, the expense of fighting fires consumed 56 percent of the agency’s budget.

Both Daines and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., have voiced support for ending fire borrowing, and a bill with support from members of both parties has been introduced in the Senate.

The law would treat wildfires like other natural disasters; the Forest Service would have access to extra funds without having to raid its budgets.

“We’re seeing growing bipartisan support, Democrats and Republicans, getting behind a comprehensive reform on how we fund our wildfires and the way we manage our forests,” Daines said.

Daines hopes the support will extend to additional measures including the forced arbitration in some forest management cases brought by groups fighting projects, and capping the amount of attorney fees that can be recovered by victorious groups.

His wish list also includes a subsidy for logging communities, a reduction in analysis requirements of projects vetted under the National Environmental Policy Act and reversal of a court ruling blamed for delaying logging projects.

The reforms would allow logging projects to move through the system faster, increasing the number of new projects, Daines said. Forest management projects can reduce forest density and help reduce the size and severity of wildfires leading to lower firefighting costs and enhanced public safety, he added.

“Either we’re going to manage our forests better, or our forests are going to manage us, and we certainly saw that this past summer,” he said.

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Lodgepole Complex fire

Fire lingers in an area burned by the Bridge Coulee fire in the Lodgepole Complex on Saturday near Sand Springs on Sunday.

A 2015 push by then-Rep. Ryan Zinke to end fire borrowing was also paired with proposals to speed up logging projects, but was ultimately stripped from an omnibus budget bill.

At the time, Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said that Zinke was able to build Democratic support in the House.

“But there are some in the Senate who ignore the facts and don’t believe active forest management will help Montana against wildfires,” Swift said.

In September, Zinke appeared on Voices of Montana, a radio program on the Northern Broadcasting Network. On the show, he criticized environmentalists, saying he would call for "active forest management," and asking for "a little help from my congressional friends to do it."

This year, Daines pointed to the Stonewall Vegetation Project in Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest as a sign that change is needed. The delayed logging and prescribed fire operation was held up in litigation when fires burned in the area this summer.

Forest projects like Stonewall were slowed after federal judges ruled in a case brought by the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the U.S. Forest Service must do a top-level review of new critical habitat for lynx under the Endangered Species Act, The Missoulian reported.

Reversing Cottonwood is a top priority for Daines.

“The mismanagement of our federal forests and these radical environmentalists have prevented hardworking Montanans from having jobs, and this just adds more fuel, literally, to our wildfires,” he said in a Senate speech last year.

Tester has not said whether he supports some of the additional policies, but has voiced support for changes in the wake of Cottonwood. He also supports reauthorizing a school reimbursement program, which provides rural counties funds that used to come from more robust logging revenues.

Selectively logging the forest and using other forest management techniques like prescribed burns may have made the Stonewall fires less severe, said Andrew Larson, an associate professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana.

“We can, through management, change how fire behaves and change the likely outcomes,” he said. But no amount of management completely eliminates the risk of fire.

Matthew Koehler, director of the WildWest Institute in Missoula, said the new policies could erode protections that have already been chipped away since he got involved in conservation 20 years ago.

“We feel as if America's bedrock environmental laws are worth fighting for,” he said. “And efforts to undermine, gut, or curtail these bedrock environmental laws only benefit the timber industry the oil and gas industry and those who would exploit our natural resources.”

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Lodgepole Complex fire

A plane drops a defensive line of retardant on the Bridge Coulee fire in the Lodgepole Complex near Sand Springs on July 23.

Koehler called the bill to overturn Cottonwood a “give-away” of public lands to logging companies.

In 2016, loggers harvested 72 percent of the year’s logging goal in the Forest Service’s northern region, which includes Montana. In 2014 and 2015, loggers met their harvesting goals.

The goals are set based on funding availability and information contained in the management plans set for each forest.

He said that limiting the rights of groups to sue over these types of forest projects silences critics and undermines a tenet of American democracy. He said judges who rule for groups like Cottonwood shouldn’t be seen as enemies, because they are making sure agencies follow the rules.

“If they follow the law, their own regulations and the best science,” he said. “These lawsuits go away.”

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