Battling wildfires across America takes a toll here in Wisconsin, even if those fires don’t often hit close to home. Places like the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Ice Age Trail suffer, as do the people who recreate there or depend on them for their livelihoods, because money that should be going for land and water protection and management in Wisconsin is being spent out West.
As Congress considers additional disaster relief aid in response to the hurricanes that recently devastated parts of the U.S. and Caribbean, lawmakers should also provide more funding for fire suppression and permanently change the way the U.S. pays to fight wildfires. Congress needs to treat wildfires like the disasters they are and make disaster funding accessible for federal firefighting efforts.
Catastrophic fires are happening more often as increasingly extreme weather patterns lead to bigger fires. More people now live near fire-prone forests, so firefighting costs are going up year after year.
At a cost of more than $2.4 billion so far, the government has spent more money fighting fires this year than any other wildfire season on record. Fires have already burned through more than 8.8 million acres of American land this year — an area bigger than the state of Maryland — according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Earthquakes, floods and other disasters use emergency funds for damages and recovery, but wildfire disasters are paid for directly from conservation programs within the Department of Interior.
While the priority is understandably to save lives and property, it means agencies borrow money from programs like recreation and forest health to make up budget shortfalls. But it’s that conservation work — such as restoring forests and removing brush — that helps reduce the risk of fire in the first place.
Not all wildfires are bad or need to be put out. When fires are part of a forest’s natural cycle, they can help plants and animals. And they prevent the build-up of grass and brush that could feed large fires later.
But when forests aren’t healthy — when brush builds up and trees are too densely packed — wildfires can rage out of control. They destroy homes and communities, harm natural and cultural resources and threaten human lives.
It doesn’t make sense to have firefighting come at the expense of projects that would make our lands healthier — and less fire-prone — in the first place.
We need to break this cycle, and Congress holds the keys to a solution.
Lawmakers are currently considering how to fix this problem so we can pay for firefighting, reduce the risk of future megafires and still benefit from conservation and other programs here in Wisconsin.
The Senate this fall introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, and the House of Representatives introduced a similar bill this summer. The Senate also added a fire-funding solution to a flood insurance bill.
At The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, we think these approaches are a great idea, and they can’t be enacted soon enough. We’ve been collaborating with a broad coalition — ranging from sportsmen’s groups to other environmental organizations — to show just how much bipartisan support is out there for these bills.
Speaker Paul Ryan has been a champion of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and sportsmen’s conservation programs. Ask him to also support this critical wildfire funding fix.
We need to not only fight wildfires, but also fund conservation programs across the country. And we need to keep our forests healthy to prevent fires — and protect our land, property and people in Wisconsin and across America.