The spending bill passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday would increase funding the National Park Service needs to address its nearly $12 billion maintenance and repair backlog.
Under the proposal, which will be considered by the Senate before a Friday deadline, the Park Service would receive a 9 percent increase to its budget. The measure includes about $160 million to make repairs that would help growing numbers of visitors do everything from navigate challenging trails to have better access to restrooms. It could allow expensive transportation projects to begin soon.
The proposed funding contrasts sharply with the 8 percent cut proposed by the Trump administration, which provided $99 million for repairs.
In addition to more funding for the Park Service, the bill would provide new funding to the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department to fight wildfires.
It would keep the nearly $1.4 billion the agencies use while allowing them to draw from billions of dollars in new disaster-relief funding when wildfires morph into monsters such as two fires last year outside San Francisco and Los Angeles. In past fire seasons, the Forest Service was forced to borrow money from programs meant to prevent fires, manage forests and improve recreation to pay for more firefighters and equipment as fires grew larger and more plentiful.
Key members of both political parties agreed the practice of siphoning money from other Forest Service accounts, called “fire borrowing,” creates a vicious cycle that fueled even worse forest fires and needed to be addressed in the latest spending bill.
“Common sense has finally prevailed when it comes to how the Forest Service pays to fight record-breaking forest fires,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement.
Two other House proposals aim to provide more funding for the Park Service’s maintenance and repair backlog using royalties from offshore and onshore oil development, or possibly adding royalties from renewable energy development. Lawmakers on the Natural Resources Committee are set to debate the legislation next month.
Environmentalists hailed the bipartisan spending bill as a triumph for conservation. “The funding bill will provide a major boost for important road, bridge, and trail repair projects and for fixing historic sites — just as the National Park Service is preparing for another busy summer travel season,” Kristen Brengel, vice president for government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.
The Nature Conservancy’s Lynn Scarlett said in a statement that the bill “is more than just a positive step — it is a jump forward for conservation.” She praised the wildfire funding as “a tremendous victory. It will mean we will no longer have to pay to fight increasing wildfire disasters out of the very same budgets that could have instead gone toward making forests healthier and less prone to these extreme wildfires in the first place.”
The fix to “fire borrowing” was a hard-fought political victory. “It’s possibly the most important bipartisan natural resources accomplishment in years,” said Collin O’Mara, head of the National Wildlife Federation. “These things don’t happen every day.”
The Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, is forced to take money from other parts of its budget to pay for firefighting efforts during particularly bad fire years when its initial pot of money for wildfire suppression dries up. Under current law, emergency forest-fire responders cannot access disaster-relief funds set aside to address damage from hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters.
Starting in 2020, firefighting agencies would be able to tap an additional $2 billion to nearly $3 billion to put out fires, should they become particularly bad, on top of the $1.4 billion allotted every year.
The spending bill also includes a number of provisions designed to make the jobs of preventing fires easier, but some environmental groups contend these provisions will enable more logging on public lands.
“We’re very grateful to Democrats for keeping many of the worst riders out of this bill. Unfortunately, there are still some pretty nasty provisions in there for the environment,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
For example, the spending bill allows the Forest Service to clear underbrush and small trees — fuel for forest fires during dry years — on plots of land smaller than 3,000 acres without having to go through a lengthy environmental review.
Some lawmakers had to drop their regional forest concerns as Western Republicans with constituents devastated by forest fires, including Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson, both of Idaho, pressed congressional negotiators to include a fire-funding fix after failing to do so at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term.
The bill also reverses a controversial Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that halted a logging project in Montana over concerns about its potential impact on the endangered Canada lynx. Both the Obama administration and Montana’s entire congressional delegation had sought to overturn the decision, fearing it imperiled other logging projects.
Other Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (Utah), lamented that the bill did not give agencies even broader authority to thin trees on federal lands without the lengthy review required under the National Environmental Policy Act. His committee advanced a bill to do just that last year.
“The fire-funding fix slightly improves the Forest Service’s flexibility, but the bill is not as aggressive as it should have been in restoring the health of our nation’s forests. The Democrats and the litigation activists who back them simply dropped the ball,” Bishop said.
Referring to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Bishop added: “I am not looking forward to the Schumer fires of 2018.”
But conservationists who often side with Democrats see the bill as a stand against President Trump. It rejects the president’s bid to cut Park Service funding and environmental appropriations overall, said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Cooler heads seem to be prevailing at long last,” he said. “We welcome this bipartisan repudiation of the draconian spending cuts sought by President Trump.”