Cantwell Urges Zinke: Prioritize Funding To Restore Fire-Damaged Tribal Lands

Cantwell: We Must Support Recovery of Pacific Northwest Tribal Lands After Wildfires

WASHINGTON D.C. – Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee 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 Tribes.

“I have long warned about risks of wildfire to our communities and to the land management agencies,” Sen. Cantwell said in the letter. “I am deeply concerned about the future livelihood of the communities affected by these fires. We must make sure we have the resources necessary to restore our forests and lands and protect our people and communities.” 

In the letter, Sen. Cantwell urged Interior Department Secretary Zinke to utilize the Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) 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. In addition to the loss of lives and homes, these fires jeopardize the livelihood of thousands, and the loss of vegetation has caused catastrophic erosion. 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 specifically in place to help restore federal lands (including Indian lands held in Trust by the federal government) after wildfires. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture have conducted assessments of the burned areas and have recommended emergency stabilization treatments to minimize the threats of erosion, deforestation and environmental degradation.  
However, Tribal communities have experienced problems securing assistance to restore the economic value of their lands. The Department of the Interior has prioritized the restoration of other federal lands.

“Since the beginning of the Yakama People, the forests have been, and continue to be, essential to our way of life,” Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy said. “The U.S. Department of Interior has failed to meet their fiduciary responsibility to our people—ignoring our humanity and connections to those things that cannot speak for themselves. We appreciate the considerable efforts of Senator Cantwell to enforce the fiduciary responsibilities of our trustee, the U.S. Department of the Interior, to provide the necessary resources to move forward.”

"Fires devastated more than 250,000 acres on the reservation in 2015. 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,” Cody Desautel of Colville tribe said. “We hope the secretary will consider this benefit, and the federal government’s trust responsibility in making this decision."

The Colville tribe has 660,000 acres of land managed for commercial timber. The wildfires in 2015 have resulted in a major loss of revenue for the Tribe. Unfortunately, the Department of the Interior has stated that they have insufficient resources to respond. But, Sen. Cantwell’s office was recently notified that 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, Sen. Cantwell requested Secretary Zinke to share the balance of the BAR program account, as well as 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 questioned. 

“I understand that the BAR program currently maintains a carryover balance of about $11 million,” Sen. Cantwell noted. “I am requesting that you prioritize the remaining BAR program funds for Northwest Tribes.

“We should give priority to supporting the Tribes as they work to recover from the impacts of wildfire and uphold our obligations.”