On October 5, NACo sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) conveying counties’ concerns regarding the increasing threat of catastrophic wildfires across the country, particularly on our nation’s federal forest lands. 62 percent of America’s counties contain federal public lands, and the health of our national forests has a direct impact on the health and safety of county residents. NACo’s letter urged Congress to act on three key issues that will help counties mitigate the risks of and respond to catastrophic wildfires: fire borrowing, more active forest management and reauthorizing the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program.
Nearly 1,900 counties nationwide contain federal forests and other federally managed public land, and counties are on the front lines as communities respond to and recover from wildfire events. This year alone, 8.5 million acres have burned nationwide, costing $2.5 billion to suppress. In September, Congress appropriated an extra $300 million for federal land management agencies to reimburse management accounts depleted through the practice of fire borrowing, where forest management accounts are raided to pay for fire suppression activities. In the letter, NACo expressed the need for Congress to develop a fiscal solution halting this practice and allowing agencies to use their forest management budget for actual management activities.
While halting fire borrowing is a much-needed step, Congress must also take action to allow for more active management of our federal forests. Reduced active management resulting from decades of federal policies has resulted in overgrown, unhealthy forests especially susceptible to major fires. Counties believe active forest management, done in a sustainable manner, will ensure the health of our federal forests for future generations. Active management can be successful when counties and other local stakeholders are brought into the collaborative process and are allowed to develop and implement consensus-driven solutions to our nation’s complex resource management challenges.
NACo’s letter also made clear the importance of reauthorizing the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program. Through SRS, the federal government has provided payments to over 700 forest counties and 4,100 school districts due to sharp declines in forest revenues, serving as a critical safety-net for forest counties impacted by declines in forest production and the loss of forest jobs. SRS will continue to be a critical program until the declines in forest production can be fully addressed.
NACo will continue to work closely with Congress and the administration to promote locally supported, consensus-driven solutions to our federal forest management challenges, reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and ensure fiscal stability for counties, while also promoting economic growth.