During her keynote address Monday at the Western Governors' Association annual meeting, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the Obama administration is revamping the "crazy" way the federal government has budgeted for fighting wildfires.
President Barack Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 sets aside $954 million in a new disaster fund for wildfires. The fund will be used in years when the cost of fighting fires exceeds the budgeted amount - something that has been occurring frequently as fire seasons lengthen and increase in severity.
When costs overran in the past, the budget money was pulled from programs aimed at improving forest health or mitigating for the danger of wildfires.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the eight governors at the conference had an unprecedented conference call Monday with Obama to talk about drought conditions in the West, floods and particularly the threat of wildfires. Obama was in the Situation Room for the call with some of his key cabinet members, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
"With longer and more severe wildfire seasons, the current way that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior budget for wildland fire is unsustainable," Vilsack said in a media release Monday. "Until fire fighting is treated like other natural disasters that can draw on emergency funding, fire-fighting expenditures will continue to disrupt forest restoration and management, research, and other activities that help manage our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire."
According to a study released by Vilsack Monday Colorado lost out on significant forest health projects in 2012 and 2013 because funding was pulled to pay for wildfires.
Included in the list of scaled back or canceled projects:
- Emergency repairs on the Pike and San Isabel National Forest and Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands were only partially funded
- Ecosystem assessments were not conducted on more than 25,000 acres
- An invasive species program in Colorado was not funded
- A project to clear fallen beetle kill trees was not funded in Colorado, affecting maintenance on 50-100 miles of trail
"It's significant to all Western states," said Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. "It really does make sense to actually dedicate the money to putting out the fires, not robbing from the mitigation efforts and robbing opportunities to really do active forest management to fight the fires. We know that fire expenses are going to continue throughout the West. They are significant and we need to address them up front as opposed to dealing with it after the fact."
Hickenlooper called on his fellow governors to make sure their congressional representatives are supportive of the budget plan and corresponding legislation.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said calling his struggles with the government over management of federal lands a frustration "is like calling King Kong just another monkey."
"We have been struggling with this for years," Otter said.
He added that the 2014 Farm Bill is the first serious look that he's seen at prevention instead of just attacking the next disaster.
Jewell told the governors in her keynote address that the president is committed to addressing wildfires, drought and flood.
The three disasters go hand-in-hand across the West.
The governors conference continues Tuesday and Wednesday at The Broadmoor.
Contact Megan Schrader