Policy Update | The Wildfire Emergency Act

Blue Forest has partnered with World Resources Institute and the U.S. Forest Service to create and deploy the Forest Resilience Bond to help the Agency increase the pace and scale of this high priority work, accomplishing more work in less time.

Written by: Mac Cloyes, Policy Director

Catastrophic wildfires and record setting fire seasons are the new norm. According to recent testimony, the U.S. Forest Service must double hazardous fuel treatments over the next decade to reduce the risk of wildfire by 80%. Blue Forest has partnered with World Resources Institute and the U.S. Forest Service to create and deploy the Forest Resilience Bond to help the Agency increase the pace and scale of this high priority work, accomplishing more work in less time. Congress is prioritizing this work through the appropriations process and legislation like Senator Feistein’s recently introduced Wildfire Emergency Act, discussed below.

The Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 fire season was another unprecedented year, with more acres burned than any other year in modern history, and the largest fire in California history–the August Complex–which burned over 1 million acres in northern California. According to recent testimony from USDA Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen,

The increased frequency of wildfires in the wildland-urban interface continues to impact more homes and communities than ever before, with more acres burned in California than in any previous year on record. In 2020, wildfires destroyed nearly 18,000 homes and outbuildings…In 2021, we are anticipating and are prepared for another long and arduous fire year. 

When is this alarming trend going to end? The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of forests and grasslands and estimates a backlog of 80 million acres in need of restoration, with over 60 million acres and 70,000 communities at risk from catastrophic wildfire. In FY 2020, the Forest Service treated 2.65 million acres on the National Forest System and adjacent lands to mitigate wildfire risk. The FY 2022 Forest Service budget requests a $400 million increase for programs that restore forests and grasslands, of which $141 million directly supports hazardous fuels reduction. This funding level will allow the agency to treat an estimated 3.7 million acres to mitigate wildfire risk in FY 2022.

On April 15th, Chief Christiansen testified on the FY 2022 Forest Service budget before the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. Representative Simpson (R-Idaho) asked the Chief how many acres the agency would need to treat to reduce the risk of wildfire, and she explained:

[W]e have to do a paradigm shift, quite frankly…We have a scale mismatch in treating our lands. So, we definitely have to treat more lands. We have to up our game and we have really incredible…scientists that are showing this. We call it fireshed modeling…These treatments…need to be strategically placed at these large landscapes…And strategic means we don’t have to treat every acre, but we need to for example, strategically treat 40 percent of the fireshed and that will reduce 80 percent of the bad outcomes.…[T]o make this paradigm shift we would have to add another 2.65 million acres a year for the next ten years to execute this strategy. So, that’s obviously more than double what we’re doing now.

With a rough estimate of $1,000 per acre treated, an additional 2.65 million acres per year over each of the next 10 years would cost approximately $26.5 billion. Congress has prioritized funding for the programs that support this work, but the current funding and existing capacity to accomplish this work is not sufficient. As the Chief stated, we need a paradigm shift.

How do we add another 2.65 million acres a year for the next ten years to execute this strategy? There is no single solution, but Congress and the Forest Service are already working on solutions that would enable Blue Forest Conservation to better address this problem by deploying more private capital to fund this high priority work.

On May 26th, Senators Feinstein (D-Calif.), Padilla (D-Calif.), and Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced the Wildfire Emergency Act. The purpose of Title I of the Act–Landscape-Scale Forest Restoration–is to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire. Among many other features, the Act authorizes:

  • $250 million over 5 years for up to 20 Forest Service projects of 100,000 acres or greater to restore forests and reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire.

  • The “Conservation Finance Agreement,” a new partnership agreement for the Forest Service with a duration of 2-20 years in which the second and subsequent years of the agreement may be contingent on future appropriations, backed by a cancellation payment similar to that used in federal contracting.

Authorizing the Forest Service to sign a long-term Conservation Finance Agreement would give the Forest Service flexibility to commit to large-scale projects while providing partners and investors with an appropriate level of financial certainty. This legislation would enable Blue Forest Conservation to work with partners, investors, and the agency to deploy millions of dollars in private capital on large-scale restoration projects on National Forest System lands.

As a Forest Service partner, Blue Forest finances forest restoration projects through the Forest Resilience Bond to leverage federal resources with long-term financial commitments from multiple stakeholders that benefit from healthy forests forward to increase the pace and scale of this critical work. While increasing federal appropriations for hazardous fuels is likely part of the solution, it is not the solution. Innovative approaches like the Forest Resilience Bond enable those who environmentally and economically benefit from this work to participate in the solution at a landscape scale, resulting in more work getting done, faster, at a lower cost to the federal government and participating stakeholders.

The Forest Resilience Bond seeks to overcome the funding gap for forest restoration, not only through increases in public or philanthropic sources, but by allowing private capital to play a role in supporting public land management. Over $3 billion in sustainable investment capital remains undeployed due to a lack of investment opportunities in the conservation finance space, according to a report by Forest Trends and JP Morgan. As a result, conservation-focused investors have not had an opportunity to support these projects due to a lack of viable deals. The Chief made it clear in her testimony that there is a need for more investment in order to double hazardous fuels treatments on National Forest System lands over the next 10 years. And we know there is investor interest, with at least $3 billion in undeployed sustainable investment capital. This partnership built the Forest Resilience Bond specifically to bridge that gap.

To learn more about the Wildfire Emergency Act, please see Senator Feinstein’s press release, summary, and section-by-section analysis. To learn more about Blue Forest and the Forest Resilience Bond, please email us at connect@blueforest.org.