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Interior, Agriculture Secretaries Call For Wildfire Funding Reforms

Bente Birkeland
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Commerce City to urge a change in how the federal government funds large wildfire suppression.

Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the Interior and Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, came to Colorado Tuesday to urge a change in how the federal government pays to fight catastrophic wildfires.

"The solution is for these fires to be looked upon in the same way we look at tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, they're natural disasters and they should be funded as such," Vilsack said.

Interior's Jewell agrees the funding mechanism should change.

Both secretaries want Congress to fund the most expensive and devastating wildfires from a separate disaster fund. Speaking at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside of Denver, Jewell said too many members of Congress are failing to see the bigger picture.

"When we invest in preventive actions like fuel removal, or making communities more resilient by building fire lines around them preemptively, we are actually reducing the costs lost-term," said Jewell. "But when you're budgeting on a year to year basis, they are being short sighted and requiring us to dip into those funds that reduce our long-term costs."

Credit Bente Birkeland / RMCR
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, left, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaking in Commerce City, Colo., June 9, 2015.

Vilsack said his department often has to borrow several hundred million dollars each year from the part of its budget for forest restoration to instead help fight wildfires. He said paying for these catastrophic wildfires with funds slated to keep forests healthy actually increases the fire risk.

2015 is expected to be an average fire year across the west. That's despite wetter spring conditions across much of the Front Range and central states like Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Other parts of the west weren't as lucky. The June 2015 wildland fire potential outlook [.pdf] states that, "areas of extreme to exceptional drought still remain over California, western Nevada, and southeastern Oregon."

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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