After smoke drifts east, U.S. Congress eyes spending billions to curb wildfire threat

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 15 November 2021 01:02 GMT

U.S. Forest Service firefighter Ben Foley lights backfires to slow the spread of the Dixie Fire, a wildfire near the town of Greenville, California, U.S. August 6, 2021. REUTERS/Fred Greaves

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More than half of the $27 billion in forestry funding in the social spending bill, which the House aims to pass this week, would go toward 'hazardous fuels reduction projects'

* Bill includes $27 billion for forestry, down from $40 billion

* Advocates still tout funding as a critical step forward

* Money intended in part to reduce worsening wildfire threats

By David Sherfinski

WASHINGTON, Nov 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Billowing smoke from wildfires was so thick over the summer that it blocked out mountain views in the western United States and prompted health warnings for vulnerable people - even those far from the deadly blazes - to stay indoors.

But it was the drift of the worsening air as far east as New York and Washington D.C. that may have been the spark lawmakers needed to advance major spending packages now moving on Capitol Hill that aim to address the threat, said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

"I hate to say it, but this year smoke finally made it to the East Coast - and I think people on the East Coast started to grasp the urgency of the situation," Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Beyond paid leave and healthcare, House Democrats' $1.75 trillion social spending package moving through Congress includes about $27 billion for forestry programs, with an eye on curbing the climate-fueled blazes ravaging the western U.S.

The funding is down from $40 billion in an earlier version, as Democrats scramble to scale back a more expansive $3.5 trillion draft package to accommodate cost-minded members.

Advocates, though, say even the lower amount - combined with wildfire funding in President Joe Biden's $1 trillion-plus infrastructure package - represents a historic step forward.

"It is still the biggest forest climate investment in U.S. history – it's not even close," said Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, a nonprofit group.

"Forests held up much better than a lot of other things in the bill," he said. "They were recognized as uniquely effective in addressing both climate mitigation and climate adaptation and resilience."

Forests are one of the best natural "carbon sinks" – meaning they pull climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they grow and store it.

That means proper forest conservation and restoration efforts – as well as prescribed burns to reduce the risk of wildfires that have eaten up millions of acres of land this year – are critical in the battle to curb global warming.

Bennet estimated that costs for wildfire mitigation measures run about $1,500 per acre - far lower than the $50,000 per acre to fight fires that have already started.

But "in the absence of federal funding, communities have had to spend money that they shouldn't have had to spend doing the forest restoration," he said.

More than half of the $27 billion in forestry funding included in the $1.75 trillion social spending bill, which the House aims to pass this week, would go toward "hazardous fuels reduction projects".

That's things like clearing brush through prescribed burns or mechanical thinning so that when fires do occur they're not as intense, said Haley Leslie-Bole, a research analyst with the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.

"It is expensive to go in and do that - but as Sen. Bennet said, it's way more expensive to fight these catastrophic conflagrations," Leslie-Bole said.

Federal firefighting costs for efforts by the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department agencies to suppress fires have totaled close to $2 billion every year on average over the past decade, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In 2021, wildland fires have burned through more than 6.5 million acres in the United States as of early November, the agency said – about in line with the recent 10-year average.

Still, the overall threat is spreading.

The prevalance of "fire-prone" days is expanding across parts of the western United States, including in some places, from Oklahoma to Nebraska, that may not expect them, according to an August study from Climate Central, a nonprofit group.

HALTING FOREST LOSS

As lawmakers in Washington D.C. wrestle with Biden's domestic agenda this month, the president traveled to Scotland to speak at the U.N. climate change talks, where he promoted a global deal aimed at cutting deforestation by 2030.

"Preserving forests and other ecosystems can and should play an important role in meeting our ambitious climate goals as part of the net-zero emissions strategy we all have," Biden said.

More than 100 global leaders pledged at the COP26 talks to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of the decade, but environmentalists called for more funding and tough regulation of businesses and financiers linked to forest destruction.

Loss of forests has major implications for global goals to curb warming, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-heating carbon emissions produced worldwide, but release the carbon they store when they rot or are burned.

In the United States, some environmentalists have warned that too much forest thinning in the name of wildfire management could be counterproductive and that commercial loggers could look for ways to cash in on forest-clearing projects.

To address those concerns, lawmakers have included guardrails on the new funding.

For example, some $4 billion for hazardous fuel reduction in the $1.75 trillion bill is supposed to go to projects that are "primarily noncommercial in nature" and that prioritize the restoration and retention of old-growth and large trees.

Logging and timber interests say the legislation is too restrictive.

"The timber industry is ready to get to work, in spite of the unnecessary obstacles Congress opted to put in the (spending) bill," said Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition.

Bennet said there's a choice to make about how to approach the country's forests, given that people generally accept the threats associated with climate change.

"We can manage them properly and we can do what we can to try to mitigate the chance of there being fires," he said.

"Or we can just sit back and fight the fires, watching the CO2 head into the atmosphere."

Related stories:

Climate change fuels more ‘fire-prone’ days beyond U.S. West coast 

Mega-blazes put spotlight on Europe's firefighting tactics

Catching fire: AI is helping scarce firefighters better predict blazes

("Reporting by David Sherfinski. Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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