Guest column: Congress: Fund solutions for wildfires

Severe fires – whether nearby or somewhere else in the West – are having an indirect but major impact on Idaho’s public lands, particularly our national forests, writes Will Whelan.

We’re approaching the end of December and the West is still burning. Today, the fires continue to threaten lives, destroy homes and force evacuations of communities in California. Not too long ago the blazes and smoky skies were here at home in Idaho. Tomorrow, fires will impact us again and our neighbors.

Longer fire seasons, larger fires and drier conditions — all made worse by a changing climate — are the alarming trends we face. With these trends comes another worrisome fact, the cost of fighting fires continues to grow.

At a price tag of more than $2.9 billion in 2017 fiscal year, the government has spent more money fighting fires than any other wildfire season on record. Fires have already burned more than 8.8 million acres in 2017, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Yet, there is no dedicated source of funding to fight these fires. Instead the funding is coming from the same budgets meant to care for our forests and deserts. Severe fires – whether nearby or somewhere else in the West – are having an indirect but major impact on Idaho’s public lands, particularly our national forests.

While we may have little control over some factors in dealing with wildfires, we can fix this ever growing and deteriorating funding problem. The solution lies with Congress.

Both chambers of Congress are currently considering legislation that would do just that. The Senate this fall introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, and the House of Representatives introduced a similar bill this summer These bills would allow the public lands agencies to access disaster funding in the most severe fire seasons and help protect their land stewardship budgets from the ever-escalating cost of fire suppression.

Our Idaho lawmakers are some of the leading voices for this bi-partisan legislation. Senators Crapo and Congressman Simpson are the lead sponsors for the legislation in their respective chambers. Senator Risch and Congressman Labrador have played important supporting roles. We thank them for their leadership and commitment.

We think these comprehensive congressional approaches are a great idea. And we’ve been collaborating with a broad coalition, ranging from the timber industry to sportsmen’s groups to other conservation organizations, to show the broad and bipartisan support for a wildfire funding fix.

We know that firefighting costs are going to continue to rise. And under the government’s current funding structure, our public lands managers simply can’t keep up.

Idahoans love and depend on our national forests. We need to keep them healthy, accessible and safe. So, it’s critical for Congress to pass a funding solution to this problem right away.

Please show your support, by letting Congress know fire funding legislation should be a priority. Go to

Will Whelan is the Director of Government Relations for the Idaho Chapter of The Nature Conservancy