After two years of wildfire disasters on the rural plains, two Kansas lawmakers are working to address the federal government’s rigid rules and red tape that has been a hindrance to the rebuilding efforts.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, introduced four bills Thursday to address the problems with Farm Service Agency programs that help pay for fences and cattle losses when such incidents occur. Republican Rep. Roger Marshall introduced the same legislation Thursday in the House, Moran told The News Thursday morning.
“This legislation is the result of conversations with people affected - veterinarians, bankers, livestock producers,” said Moran, adding he has visited Clark County four times since the fires.
"It is nice to see something that results from listening to people telling their challenges," he said.
Among the issues is the low program caps for such massive losses. For instance, in Clark County, hit the hardest from the March wildfires, ranchers lost more than 4,000 miles of fence worth $40 million. However, the government program that helps cover such dire losses only covers up to $200,000 in fencing costs. That's about 26 miles of fence at 75 percent cost share, Moran said.
“That is simply inefficient," he said.
All told, Kansas had more than 711,000 acres burned in early March due to dry conditions, strong winds and low humidity, according to the Kansas Division of Emergency Management.
The majority of the losses, however, occurred in the Starbuck fire that spread across southwestern Kansas. That fire began in Beaver County, Oklahoma, on March 6 and burned 662,687 acres in Kansas and Oklahoma. More than 500,000 acres were ablaze in Clark, Comanche and Meade counties - making Starbuck the largest in Kansas history - surpassing last year’s Anderson Creek fire, where nearly 400,000 acres burned. Clark County had 425,000 acres burned.
Losses in Clark County totaled more than $44.6 million, which included the fencing, according to the county’s emergency preparedness coordinator.
That figure doesn't include cattle. The local estimate is ranchers lost somewhere between 5,000 and 9,000 head.
As ranchers and others began to tally their losses, they realized the programs to help them rebuild and soften such losses weren’t sufficient.
The Emergency Conservation Program that helps with fencing is one of the programs Moran and Marshall are targeting. The other is the Livestock Indemnity Program – which only pays up to $125,000 for cattle losses. According to Moran’s office, that equals 70 cow/calf pairs.
That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 500 or more some of the ranches lost in the wildfire.
Moran, who first toured the fire devastation the Sunday following the fires, found resilient ranchers ready to rebuild. But he also heard concerns about the difficulties they were facing at the federal level.
For some ranchers, the wildfires killed a significant portion of their collateral. And very few had insurance on their cattle. But the way this federal program is structured, ranchers have to make large, up-front costs for materials and labor and have the work complete before receiving payments.
“We saw this in the Anderson Creek fire, they were still seeking reimbursement for fencing,” Moran said of Barber County ranchers who waited more than a year to get a payment.
The bills, Moran said, would help ranchers recover and rebuild during disasters like Starbuck.
Regarding fencing, one bill would raise the ECP payment limit. Another would allow for up-front payments rather than waiting for the work to be complete.
“The crux of this legislation, it allows for a landowner to get compensated up front so they can afford to do the work."
Meanwhile, two other bills address livestock losses, including one that would double the payment limit.
Moran was hopeful fellow congressional leaders would support the bills - especially from lawmakers in states like California, Oklahoma and Montana where wildfires have occurred this year.
“Ultimately, this could become a farm bill discussion,” Moran said of the farm program that is up for renewal soon.
For now, ranchers along Kansas’ southern border continue the rebuilding effort. Kendall Kay, president of the Stockgrowers State Bank and mayor of the Clark County seat of Ashland, estimated 70 percent of fences had been rebuilt.
“There is a lot of work to do, but in that short of a window, at the end of the day, you go from no fences to getting the work done to replacing that many miles.”
He thanked the support of people across the country for the area's progress. Some gave money. Some sent fencing supplies. Some volunteered their time clearing out damaged fence lines.
Kay’s bank has been a pillar in the process, pledging to help ranchers - some who lost everything - rebuild. The bank itself has developed programs to bridge the gap, he said, including offering a three-year, low-interest loan so producers can fund rebuilding efforts until federal payments come in.
Of the federal programs, Kay said, “It doesn’t go very far. These producers lost their collateral,” he said. “You look at cash flow, and it makes sense to have the money up front.”
Kay said he and the community are appreciative of Moran and Marshall's efforts, but as he told lawmakers, “Don’t do it for us.”
“This isn’t going to be the last fire,” he said.