Scott Brennan

Scott Brennan

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If you blinked you might have missed it.

In late March, almost six months into the current fiscal year, Congress finally passed the 2018 spending bill to fund the federal government. Despite all the rhetoric in Washington, D.C., the bill passed with a strong showing of bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

Normally, Congress performing its fundamental responsibility of funding the government shouldn’t be cause for celebration, but the bill means great things for Montana’s public lands.

Most importantly, the bill contained a historic agreement to fix the way the federal government budgets and pays for the costs of fighting wildfires. On its face this means more money for firefighting, but in application it will make more funding available for recreation, habitat restoration, and infrastructure upkeep across Montana’s public lands.

Montana has always been forced to deal with wildfire, but in recent decades fire seasons have become longer, more intense, and costlier. This isn’t just a perception, in 1995 the Forest Service spent just 16 percent of its budget fighting fires. By 2015, that number grew to more than 50 percent. Without action by Congress, the Forest Service projected it would spend nearly two-thirds of its overall budget fighting fires by 2021.

As more money was diverted to fighting fire, it came at the expense of other priorities that have had real impacts on Montana forests. Some road and trail maintenance efforts have been put on hold. Revisions of forest plans have been delayed. Watershed restoration projects have been halted. Mine cleanups are not taking place.

The diversion of funding to fight wildfire also meant less funding to help make our communities more resilient to wildfire, creating a dangerous feedback loop that got worse with every fire season. The funding problem was clear, and a bipartisan bill, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, would treat the costliest fires like other natural disasters thus making more money available for the actual business of managing our national forests.

For years, this common-sense proposal — led by a bipartisan coalition including Montana Sen. Jon Tester — was held hostage by a small handful of ideologues in Congress — led by anti-public lands members of Congress such as Rep. Westerman from Arkansas and Rep. Bishop from Utah — who refused to fix the crisis in funding wildfires until they were able to secure rollbacks of environmental laws that safeguard our forests and ensure the public has a voice in the management of our public lands.

Time and time again, this vocal minority, which has included Montana’s junior Sen. Steve Daines, blocked the proposal to address the Forest Service fire budget.

Until late March. Through the efforts of Sen. Tester and others, common-sense prevailed and Congress included in the 2018 spending bill a comprehensive deal to fix the fire issue and help address some fire risks near communities.

Unfortunately, Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte decided that fixing the fire issue and supporting Montana’s public lands wasn’t worth their vote as they both voted against the funding bill in their respective chambers.

Worst of all, the ideologues whose objections had held up the passage of the fire fix are already plotting new ways to weaken protections for our national forests.

For our Montana representatives, their energies would be better spent working with the Forest Service and Montana’s many place-based collaborative groups to ensure this historic win will benefit Montanans of all stripes for decades to come.

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Scott Brennan in the Montana state director of The Wilderness Society and a long-time advocate for collaborative, community-based conservation.