Cantwell seeks fire funds release

By:  News Staff
Source: The Omak-Okanogan Chronicle

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has asked the Department of the Interior to prioritize funding to support the post-fire recovery of lands owned by Pacific Northwest Indian tribes.

“I have long warned about risks of wildfire to our communities and to the land management agencies,” said Cantwell, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“I am deeply concerned about the future livelihood of the communities affected by these fires,” she said in her letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “We must make sure we have the resources necessary to restore our forests and lands and protect our people and communities.” 

In the letter, Cantwell urged Zinke to use Burned Area Rehabilitation program funds to address areas that still have not received attention after being impacted by the unprecedented number of large fires in 2014 and 2015.

The Colville Indian Reservation was among those impacted by the 2014 Carlton Complex and other fires and the 2015 Tunk Block, North Star and other blazes.

In addition to the loss of lives and homes, the fires jeopardize the livelihood of thousands, and the loss of vegetation has caused catastrophic erosion, Cantwell said. Increased rainfall has caused runoff and sent damaging amounts of sediment into streams, rivers and reservoirs. The runoff has also caused flooding that threatens homes, communities and water infrastructure.

The BAR program is in place specifically to help restore federal lands, including Indian lands held in trust by the federal government, after wildfires. The departments of the interior and agriculture have conducted assessments of the burned areas and have recommended emergency stabilization treatments to minimize the threats of erosion, deforestation and environmental degradation.  

Tribal communities have experienced problems securing assistance to restore the economic value of their lands, Cantwell said. The Department of the Interior has prioritized the restoration of other federal lands.

“Fires devastated more than 250,000 acres on the reservation in 2015,” said Cody Desautel of the Colville Confederated Tribes’ natural resources division. “The fire rehab efforts are ongoing, but dependent on funding.

“Carryover BAR funding currently within the Department of the Interior could provide countless benefits to the Colville tribe and its people for generations. We hope the secretary will consider this benefit, and the federal government’s trust responsibility in making this decision.”

The tribe has 660,000 acres of land managed for commercial timber. The wildfires in 2015 resulted in a major loss of revenue for the tribe, Cantwell said.

The Department of the Interior has said it has insufficient resources to respond, she said, but added that her office recently was told more than $10 million is just sitting in the department’s BAR account and has yet to be tagged for any particular project.

In the letter, Cantwell asked Zinke to share the balance of the BAR program account, and an explanation of any future obligations incurred using this funding if not for tribes.

“If the carryover BAR funds are not spent directly on assisting tribes, I would like to know on what else they are spent,” Sen. Cantwell said. “I understand that the BAR program currently maintains a carryover balance of about $11 million. I am requesting that you prioritize the remaining BAR program funds for Northwest tribes.