Forest Service’s mission goes up in flames

New report shows long-term firefighting costs eroding most other work.


We’ve written quite a bit lately about “fire borrowing” —  what happens when the Forest Service runs out of the funds it’s budgeted for firefighting, which are based on average wildfire costs over the last 10 years. Then it’s forced to start dipping into money meant for other programs, including those intended to reduce the risk and  intensity of wildfires. Agency chief Tom Tidwell recently told the Coloradoan, “The reality of the last two years — and where we’ll be headed this year — is that we have to use almost all the (prevention) funding (to pay for firefighting instead). …This is also the time of the year we do a lot of the planning for next year. That planning (won’t) get done.”

But not only do these budgetary borrowings, usually to the tune of about $500 million per year, hurt current projects, there’s a huge long-term cost as well. Critics ranging from members of Congress to agency staffers have charged that the Forest Service is rapidly becoming the Fire Service, an agency whose duty to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands” has been utterly overrun by its need to put out fires.

Now, a new report from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lays out the problem created by the rapidly-rising cost of fighting forest fires, which have gotten much more severe in recent years thanks to climate change, drought, disease and insects, development near forests, and the overgrowth of flammable shrubs and small trees. Firefighting now consumes 42 percent of the Forest Service’s budget (if you count all fire-related expenses, it’s 51 percent), compared to just 16 percent in 1995. Notes the report:

“The increasing cost of fighting wildland fire has had a negative and lasting impact on the Forest Service’s non-fire, mission critical activities. The impact of rising fire expenditures has been to slowly shift agency financial resources away from forest management and restoration, research, recreation and other mission-critical objectives and towards firefighting and other expenses related to fire management.”

A few highlights from the 13-page report include these charts, which show the growth of firefighting and fire-related expenses:

While fire staffing has increased 110 percent since 1998, to 12,000 employees, the number of staffers dedicated to managing forests has dropped by 35 percent, to less than 11,000. Here’s an outline of how these budget and personnel shifts have affected some crucial Forest Service programs since 2001:

Deferred Maintenance: 95 percent reduction

This program addresses “serious public health and safety concerns associated with the agency’s (over $5 billion) backlog in maintenance needs” — things like critical maintenance and repairs to dams and fixing health and safety problems in buildings, campsites and water supplies. In 2001, the agency was able to handle 400 major projects in this category; this year it'll be able to do 3.

Vegetation and Watershed Management: 22 percent reduction

This program covers most forest, rangeland, soil and water restoration in national forests and is key in helping land recover after fire. Projects focus on the health of watersheds and ecological communities, to improve water and air quality, keep invasive species from spreading, and reduce fire risk by treating insect- and disease-infested stands of trees.

Support for Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness Activities: 13 percent reduction

National forest visitors spent more than $13 billion last year. These programs help get people connected to public lands and support recreation, tourism and jobs, including employment for youth and veterans.

Wildlife and Fisheries Habitat Management: 17 percent reduction

Recovery efforts for threatened and endangered species fall in this category, as do conservation projects undertaken with community partners, and projects to offset climate change impacts. The agency estimates that the lack of consistent funding has reduced its capacity to complete such projects by 40 percent.

The most promising fix for the agency’s funding problems, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, is supported by the Obama administration, bipartisan lawmakers, and more than 200 industry and conservation groups. It would allow wildfires to be treated like other natural disasters, providing federal funding for the most severe fires rather than forcing the agency to take money away from other programs (see our story upcoming on Sept. 1 about the lack of congressional action on the wildfire funding mess).

Meanwhile, Denver-based thinktank Western Priorities has another take on the wildfire funding problem and what it could mean for Western states —  bankruptcy. In light of recent proposals from various states to “take back” federal lands, the group has released a report, “The Wildfire Burden,” showing that states would be hard-pressed indeed to pay for management of those lands:

“Federal land management agencies —  including the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management —  spend, on average, $3.1 billion every year protecting communities from wildfire. If state land seizure efforts are successful, this multibillion dollar cost would be transferred onto already-stretched state government budget sheets.”

Greg Zimmerman, Western Priorities’ policy director, put it this way in a press release: “By endorsing proposals to seize public lands, Western state politicians are committing their states to take on the liabilities and costs of public lands. Yet these politicians remain conveniently silent on how they would cover the costs to fight wildfire, not to mention all of the other management costs on federal lands, from protecting freshwater supplies to maintaining access for outdoor recreation.”

It’s the same problem the agency itself faces: how to pay for fighting wildfires, let alone providing everything else that we value about our national forests. Let’s hope that when Congress resumes session on Sept. 2, it will take action to fix the immediate problem – the key first step in turning the Fire Service back into the Forest Service.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News. She tweets @Peterson_Jodi.

Charlie Jankiewicz
Charlie Jankiewicz
Aug 25, 2014 10:05 PM
40 years with the Forest Service started on a fire crew in Arizona supported/participated in fire my entire career - worked at each level District, Forest, Region and Washington Office.
What has happen to the National Forest System budget to increase the Wildland Fire Management and the mindset it's the Fire Service gutted the resource programs across the board. Feel same way about the creation of the Law Enforcemnt Officer (LEO) organization funds, not aimed at the resource.
Not saying these program are not needed or shouldn't be funded. Rather I'm saying if these programs are important fund them Congress.
Don't make the Agency strangle it other program for Fire.
Richard Hutto
Richard Hutto Subscriber
Aug 26, 2014 03:58 PM
Politicians who think we can "solve" a perceived fire problem are delusional if they think forest thinning will stop fires born of hot, dry, and windy weather. It's time to save taxpayer dollars and quit trying to prevent or suppress fires! All we need to do is make homes safer and then let restorative fires burn as nature intended.
Ann Harvey
Ann Harvey Subscriber
Aug 26, 2014 06:21 PM
Well said, Richard Hutto. I couldn't agree more.
Jimmy Dean
Jimmy Dean
Aug 27, 2014 08:57 AM
The woods burn regularly, period. If you live in the "woods" you should be aware that fire protection is your job, not the federal government. The USFS should not be the savior of the western forest and range. Save the federal forestland as best you can but make homeowners responsible for their own fire safety.
Roy Brophy
Roy Brophy Subscriber
Aug 27, 2014 04:51 PM
Greed is an addiction, just as destructive as any drug and the Politicians in Washington and Western State houses are greed addicts. The only reason they want to "reclaim" land from the Federal Government is so they can sell it off to the land raping oil, timber and mining Corporations.
Greed addiction is destroying our planet and if we don't start a new political party to fight against the greed parties, we are doomed.
Chris Branch
Chris Branch Subscriber
Sep 03, 2014 08:39 AM
I full agree especially with Roy's comment. However, add 'em all up. Yes, we need the fires but there are forests up here in eastern Washington that need portions thinned and logging to do that is ok just not the way we were doing it when I was in the woods in the 70s. Prescribed and well managed natural fire by logging some of those areas that blow these fires up would help slow some of this intensity down. When the Carlton Complex really blew up I was sitting miles away with a couple of very experienced retired fire fighter/managers who could call out the places that were burning as the plume blew upward because they knew where the fuel was congregated. We don't need to lose as much as we have.

And abolutely manage the private development intrusion into the forests. We are even paying through programs to remedy the irresponsible development of homes in the forest interface. Local governments in rural washington refuse to manage that development for which our resources are spent to remedy and defend.

 Surely, the huge intense fires thin the forest but to this degree? Yes, Congress needs to fund this forest management, and include some practical logging as one of the tools which activity needs management as well. If you don't do that you are feeding the frenzy of radicals pushing the big take back to the state. At the same time they are criticizing the state for poor forest management and opposing state ownership of resource lands. Now there is a fiasco!
Tom Ribe
Tom Ribe Subscriber
Sep 05, 2014 11:50 AM
Fires are only disasters when they burn homes. Otherwise they are natural, inevitable and desirable events. Funding fire with disaster money perpetuates the delusion that fire is a bad thing. Also people like Paul Ryan who are obsessed with ideological warfare inside the beltway need to come on out and see the real world of the West. Fire and huge areas of public land are not ideological problems. They are Reality and we need politicians who can engage issues realistically. Few Republicans are able to do this.