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Senate approves wildfire management, prevention funding

Money for sage grouse habitat, water systems, more

WASHINGTON - Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., announced Thursday that the U.S. Department of Interior Appropriations bill has passed the full Senate as part of a 2019 funding package, providing critical investments in wildfire suppression and recovery activities that are of particular importance to Oregon as wildfires rage across hundreds of thousands of acres.

Here's their news release on the included proposals:

“Once again Oregon is suffering through a terrible wildfire season,” Merkley said. “We must invest in both recovery and prevention efforts to save our forests, our communities, and our farms, ranches and other businesses from devastating losses. This bill does just that, and I will continue to use my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to fight for the emergency and long-term resources Oregon needs to fully recover, and to be more resilient in the future.”

“The already-devastating fire season in Oregon and the West highlights the urgent need for this legislation providing much-needed investment in wildfire management and restoration of forest health,” Wyden said. “And the bill also helps provide resources for effective, long-term solutions to protect clean drinking water, sustainably manage our natural resources and solve land conservation challenges while strengthening economic growth and creating good-paying jobs.”

Merkley is the only Oregon member of Congress from either chamber since Senator Mark Hatfield to serve on the Appropriations Committee, considered to be one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill. He joined the committee in 2013 so that Oregon would have a strong voice in decisions about the investments our nation should be making.

Key elements of the appropriations bill that will impact Oregon include:

Forest Health Restoration and Collaboration: The bill includes funding increases for several programs that reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires on public and private lands. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management received an additional $5 million and $8 million, respectively, for hazardous fuels reduction, bringing the total funding level to $623 million. In addition, the senators fought to maintain funding for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program at $40 million. Oregon has three active CFLR projects: the Southern Blues Restoration Coalition Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project, Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, and Lakeview Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project.

Wildfire Management: In 2017, federal agencies spent $2.9 billion on wildfire suppression, making it the most expensive on record. In anticipation of the coming fire season, the bill includes $2.454 billion for fire suppression at the Forest Service and Department of the Interior, which is $508 million above last fiscal year, and will help minimize “fire borrowing.”

In the 2018 spending bill, Merkley and Wyden fought to include a fix to address “fire borrowing,” allowing federal agencies to use disaster money to fund fire suppression efforts rather than taking funds from fire prevention and other forest management programs to fight wildfires. However, in a compromise with the House Republicans, the provision will not come into effect until 2020.

Columbia River Basin Restoration Program: The EPA received $1 million to begin the planning process to implement the Columbia River Basin Restoration Program. Merkley authored the bill creating the program to provide grants to business owners, farmers, ranchers, local governments, and others in the Columbia Basin to clean up and reduce toxics for a cleaner, healthier basin.

Klamath Basin Water and Wildlife Conservation: The senators continued their support toward a long-term solution in the Klamath Basin, including $4 million to support strategies to restore fish habitat and scale up ongoing efforts to restore healthy populations of shortnose and Lost River sucker fish.

Sage Grouse: The bill preserves funding for on-the-ground activities to improve sage grouse habitat, and also secured $5 million in additional planning money. This will support the collaborative effort in Eastern Oregon that in continuing to address the loss of sage grouse habitat, working to prevent the species from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT): The bill includes $500 million for the PILT program to fund vital services for rural communities, including public safety, social services, transportation and housing. This funding goes to Oregon counties that have large tracts of federal land, which doesn’t pay property taxes.

Clean Air and Water Funding: Merkley successfully led Senate Democrats in protecting funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. President Trump’s budget proposed cutting the agency, which is responsible for reducing pollution and safeguarding public health, by nearly a quarter — 23 percent. Merkley organized 37 of his colleagues, including Wyden, in urging opposition to those cuts, which were ultimately rejected by the Appropriations Committee. The proposed cut would have led to a 20 percent reduction in the EPA workforce, which includes nearly 1,200 veterans.

Water Infrastructure: Critical water infrastructure loan programs under the Water Infrastructure Financing Innovation Authority (WIFIA) Act received $63 million. Combined with previous appropriations, WIFIA can now issue over $6 billion in low-interest loans for critical water infrastructure projects across. Merkley authored the WIFIA program in 2012, working to ensure public drinking water and wastewater infrastructure are well-maintained — critical for public health and safety, strong local businesses, population growth, and clean rivers and aquifers. WIFIA was passed into law as part of the 2014 Water Resources Development Act.

Tribal Programs: The Indian Health Service, which provides health care to thousands of Oregon Tribal members, received $5.772 billion, a $234 million increase. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education received an additional $11 million.

Land and Water Conservation Fund: The bill includes level funding at $425 million. For over 50 years the program has been the main source of funding for federal land and water acquisitions. Acquiring and protecting public lands not only provides environmental and recreational benefits, but also creates jobs in the tourism, recreation, timber, fishing, and other natural resource sectors.

The bill passed the floor on Wednesday. The next step for the bill is to be merged with a counterpart bill from the U.S. House of Representatives in order to be passed by both houses and signed into law.


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