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Feds Look for More Money to Fight Fires

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — More and bigger wildfires – even in the East – are burning through the budget of the U.S. Forest Service. But some in Congress want to attach controversial logging provisions to a proposed fix.

Droughts and a buildup of fuel are feeding more deadly wildfires, such as the 2016 fire near Gatlinburg that killed 14. Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, said firefighting that once cost $300 million a year might now run $2 billion annually.

“We project that by 2021, about 67 percent of our budget will be requested for fire,” Jones said. “The more that we have to request for fire suppression, the less that we have available to request for other programs, including those that could reduce fire risk.”

A plan with bipartisan support would create a separate budget for large, out-of-control fires, treating them as natural disasters – like floods and tornadoes. But some versions of that proposal tie the budget fix to easing of regulations on the logging industry.

The state of Tennessee paid more than $800,000 for the Sevier County fires.

Some congressional Republicans argue that environmental rules and community participation are slowing logging that could reduce the fuel for wildfires. Sam Evans, staff attorney and national parks and forests program leader for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said what’s really happening is that those members of Congress are holding the budget fix hostage in an attempt to force an unrelated policy change.

“Not all logging projects are of equal value in preventing wildfires,” Evans said. “But that’s what these provisions would do, is to say that we don’t need to think about the impacts that these projects might have on recreation, or water quality, or rare and endangered species. We just need to cut, cut, cut.”

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would provide a set level of funding for fighting fires within the current Forest Service budget. It also would create a separate disaster fire fund, which the service could call on when that initial funding is exhausted.

Evans said he expects the debate over the legislation to come to a head during discussions of a farm bill next year. The Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture, and is funded through the farm bill.

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