How Moran got wildfire relief into a bill aimed to keep the government open

Tucked quietly in a bill to avoid a government shutdown is millions in aid that will help ranchers in Clark County, Kansas.

Wildfire relief might seem like an odd measure amid a late-night budget bill finalized in the wee hours of Feb. 9 as most of America was sleeping. Ashland, the county seat town of Clark County, sits 1,400 miles from where lawmakers battled over spending.

But the struggles there haven’t been far from the mind of Sen. Jerry Moran, who toured the charred grasslands shortly after the March 7, 2017, Starbuck Fire. 

While it might seem compromise is a lost art in Washington, the Kansas Republican reached a trade-off. The ranking member of Senate Ag Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, wanted more tree assistance. Moran wanted an expansion of the Livestock Indemnity Program, which pays ranchers for their losses from a natural disaster.

They both got what they wanted.

“This isn’t something that happens often,” said Moran, noting payment limitations are often controversial. 

“This was not in the House version of disaster assistance,” Moran told High Plains Journal Feb. 11. “We worked to make sure it was in the Senate” version.

The legislation is the result of conversations Moran had with people affected by the Starbuck Fire. 

The 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 the 2016 Anderson Creek fire that scorched about 400,000 acres in Barber County. 

Clark County was the hardest hit with more than 425,000 acres burned.

The budget deal designates nearly $90 million to wildfire and hurricane aid. It eliminates the $125,000-per-producer payment cap in the Livestock Indemnity Program—or LIP. According to Moran’s office, that equals about 70 cow/calf pairs. Those payments don’t go far compared to the 500 or more head some of the ranches lost in the wildfire.

The measure covers up to 75 percent of the losses. It’s also retroactive for 2017—meaning farmers and ranchers suffering losses from Starbuck will see benefits from the program changes.

Moran said the LIP changes also will help producers in other states affected by wildfires or another natural disaster, such as California and Montana.

“It’s now more like a FEMA payment,” said Moran, noting that in a flood or tornado, there isn’t a limitation on assistance. “We were able to make the LIP program much more like a disaster program than it was otherwise.”

Removing the payment limit is just one part of the bill. The LIP was also expanded to cover animals sold at a lower price due to a natural disaster.

Veterinarians in Ashland had told Moran how some ranchers had to put some of the injured cattle down because if they took them to slaughter, they would have received a reduced price and no compensation under the LIP program unless the cattle were dead.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Moran said, adding, “the government incentivized putting down cattle as compared to something that made more sense and had less emotion.”

It’s not clear how many cattle in all were lost in southern Kansas, but local veterinarians have estimated it was somewhere between 5,000 and 9,000 head.

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The designated funding, “probably seems like peanuts to the things they throw around in Washington, D.C.,” said Kendal Kay, president of the Stockgrowers State Bank in Ashland and the city’s mayor.

Kay said he and others lobbied for the change to the assistance program, but not for themselves. 

“The comment all along was ‘Don’t do this for us. There will be another fire, do it for the next guy,’” he said.

He learned of the provision in the budget bill Feb. 8. He and a local rancher woke up early Feb. 9 and began texting each other asking whether it passed.

“He didn’t forget us,” Kay said of Moran, adding he called to thank him Feb. 9. 

Kay’s bank has been one of the pillars in the process, pledging to help ranchers—some who lost everything—rebuild. The bank itself has developed programs to bridge the gap in assistance, offering a three-year, low-interest loan so producers can fund rebuilding efforts until federal payments come in.

It was satisfying to see it all come together, Moran said.

“The folks in Kansas that suffered losses due to the fires, they weren’t demanding anything,” Moran said. “They weren’t demanding the government help them.”

Instead, what he has seen in his past four or five trips to the region since the fires is the resiliency of Kansas producers. 

Englewood Rancher David Clawson, who lost 30 head of his own cattle in the fire, said the ranching community appreciated the support from Moran and others who made it happen.

“We have Jerry Moran to thank for getting that done,” Clawson said. “Once the funding becomes available, it will show some immediate results in our area.”

Clawson said he didn’t hit the LIP limit, but “we had neighbors who hit the limit really quick.”

“It was pretty sweet that a voice out here can be heard,” Clawson said.

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].