A long-term financing fix for wildland firefighting stumbled in the final days of the lame-duck session of Congress.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, announced late Wednesday that conference talks on the Energy Policy Modernization Act had failed and were unlikely to resume until 2017.
That omnibus package included the Wildfire Disaster Funding measure to fix the U.S. Forest Service’s “fire borrowing” budget problem as well as a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Both programs were supported by all of Montana’s congressional delegation.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding bill would have allowed the Forest Service to pay for forest firefighting expenses in a similar way to how the federal government responds to other natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes.
Currently, the Forest Service has to cover firefighting within its annual appropriation, and extreme fire activity can force it to “borrow” money from other routine duties to pay for the overruns.
“The House's political games have killed a bipartisan bill and hurt Montana’s energy future and outdoor economy,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, wrote in an email on Thursday. “Montanans deserve more from their elected officials and I’ll keep working with Republicans, Democrats and Independents to create energy jobs, increase public access to public land, ensure Glacier and Yellowstone remain strong economic drivers, and invest in renewables.”
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, said through his staff that he would resume pushing on wildfire funding in January.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund collects a portion of federal royalties from offshore oil and gas leases to buy or maintain public lands for recreation and wildlife habitat. The fund has endured short-term reauthorizations for the past couple years and this bill was to have given it permanent budget status.
LWCF funds have paid for road safety improvements in wildlife corridors along Salmon Lake and public open space in Missoula, among other things.
Although two or three other pieces of legislation remain alive in Congress, none of Montana’s congressional offices knew of plans to try to use them to revive the wildfire or conservation fund initiatives.
Although no action is expected this year, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, introduced legislation Thursday to designate 13,900 acres of the Scotchman Peaks mountain range on the border with Montana as federal wilderness. The unusual landscape includes both rugged cliff ridges and low-elevation rainforest groves with a unique range of rare plant and animal species.
“If passed, this legislation would allow future generations of Idahoans to enjoy Scotchman Peaks, while at the same time protecting the needs and rights of local communities and tribes,” Risch wrote in a email on Thursday. “This bill was introduced today to start the public process, and will not move forward until I hear from Idahoans directly about this topic. I look forward to holding a public hearing in the next Congress to receive input.”
The move excited Montana members of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness organization, who have spent 12 years advocating for a cross-border protected area. The Scotchmans also cover 47,900 acres in Montana north of Trout Creek.
“We hope and expect to have a Montana bill ready to go forward and have the entire rugged area kept wild and natural for future generations,” said Doug Farrell, FSPW chairman. “The reality with the whole Scotchmans is there’s no conflicting uses there – no opposition. The support from Sandpoint and Bonner is really overwhelming from the county commissioners and chamber of commerce.”
While the bill has been introduced in the 2016 congressional year, it’s unlikely it will get a committee hearing or be up for a vote before this session expires. However, such bills are commonly reintroduced in succeeding sessions as they work through the approval process.