How is a New York beetle linked to wildfires in the West?

A wildfire burned north of Big Sur near California's Central Coast, photo taken in the west of Cachagua, Calif., on Aug. 2, 2016.
A wildfire burned north of Big Sur near California's Central Coast, photo taken in the west of Cachagua, Calif., on Aug. 2, 2016. AP

In an odd twist of politics, Western lawmakers might soon benefit as a bright green beetle spreads across upstate New York, threatening the trees used to produce bats for Major League Baseball.

The pest, called the emerald ash borer, is a particular headache for New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. During a recent visit to the Rawlings Adirondack Bat Factory in Dolgeville, N.Y., Schumer said the infestation could kill millions of ash trees and that “America’s favorite pastime has also taken a hit.” He wants Congress to respond but complained that federal money to fight the beetle has been diverted to pay for the rising costs of fighting wildfires.

Schumer’s frustration has sparked an unusual alliance with Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who for years have sponsored a bill to get Congress to treat wildfires as national disasters. That would make them eligible for emergency funding, ending the practice of “fire borrowing,” in which the U.S. Forest Service is forced to transfer money from other programs to pay for the added expense of wildfires.

While the legislation has fizzled since 2013, proponents say it will have a much greater chance of passing when Congress returns from its summer break, aided by Schumer’s political muscle. It’s an example of the coalition-building done by Crapo and Wyden as they seek to make the issue a national concern.

Crapo said New York’s efforts to battle the ash borer highlight the way in which the effect of wildfires “ripple far beyond” the West, where more than 10 million acres of forest burned in 2015, the worst year in history.

Both Crapo and Wyden said that they’ve found a powerful ally in Schumer, who will be the Senate’s top Democrat in 2017, replacing the retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

“Senator Schumer obviously is a very influential member, and so it’s very good news,” Crapo said in an interview. “We certainly have developed the momentum. … I think there’s a very good chance that we will be able to get across the finish line this year.”

And Wyden called it “pretty amazing” to have New York’s senior senator on board.

“He’s somebody who’s got a real bully pulpit – that is a huge plus,” Wyden said in an interview. “Look, there’s not a lot of national forests in Brooklyn, but what’s happened is that fire borrowing has so discombobulated the system. What you have now is members from all parts of the country saying we’ve got to end this.”

Wyden’s strategy for passing the bill is to get it attached to a broader energy bill when House and Senate conferees begin their negotiations after the summer recess. The Senate conferees include Wyden and two other key backers of the legislation, Washington state Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch.

“We’re well-positioned – it’s my top priority for the energy conference,” Wyden said.

Crapo, Wyden and Risch will press their case for the legislation at an event on Monday at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Lindsay Nothern, Crapo’s spokesman, said the senators will discuss how fire borrowing is taking money away from other preventive work, such as forest thinning and trail work, that can contribute to even more wildfires. The event will include new research showing how land management can prevent fires, while the Red Cross will highlight the human toll from the fires.

At a Senate hearing in June, Crapo said fire borrowing is hitting all aspects of the Forest Service budget, resulting in less management of the forests, fewer jobs, more disease from insects and the downgrading of habitat for wildlife and sportsmen.

“We need to call mega-fires what they are – disasters,” Crapo said.

The issue has long united Western senators.

In an op-ed earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she feared that “fire borrowing” would prevent her state from dealing with 29 million trees killed last year by drought and pests.

And at a recent hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Cantwell said that firefighting now consumes half of the Forest Service annual budget and that it will grow to 67 percent in the next 10 years if Congress doesn’t respond.

“Scientists are telling us that these fire seasons are both longer and hotter,” said Cantwell, the committee’s top-ranked Democrat.

Wyden said wildfire prevention can no longer get “short shrift” with the West facing perennial drought conditions.

“That’s the most important thing – all of the Western senators are being plagued by this,” he said.

In the House, the idea has backing from California Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, Washington state Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer, Washington state Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and Oregon Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, among others. In June, the five lawmakers led a group of 54 other House members in calling for an immediate end to fire borrowing.

Bera called the practice “irresponsible,” while Kilmer said it “cannibalizes funding” from other parts of the Forest Service budget.

Last year marked the first time that more than half of the Forest Service’s went to fight wildfires, compared with just 16 percent in 1995. It was the most expensive fire season in the department’s history, costing more than $2.6 billion.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Fire Service, complained last month that “the Forest Service is becoming the Fire Service.” He said the number of personnel doing work other than fire management has been cut by 39 percent since the 1990s, with the largest 2 percent of wildfires now accounting for 30 percent of the overall wildfire budget.

Crapo said it’s possible that the bill may get a vote as early as September, but he issued a word of warning: “It’s very unpredictable in this Congress. The situation right now is so gridlocked and elections are complicating it so much.”

That’s where Schumer’s help could come in handy.

With Major League Baseball pennant races heating up, Schumer made the most of it when he went to the Rawlings bat manufacturing plant in late July. As the ash borer reduces the supply of wood for high quality bats, Schumer said the cost to manufacture them rises “and the game of baseball suffers.”

That’s why it’s important for Congress to move quickly to pass the bill sponsored by Crapo and Wyden, he said.

“It would be a home run for Rawlings Adirondack Bat Company, their local workers and the professionals who rely on these bats,” Schumer said.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob