Don’t starve the Forest Service


A whole lot of Rocky Mountain Westerners are concerned about President Bush’s recent proposal to cut the U.S. Forest Service budget. Out our way, the land is not an abstraction. The numbers in the Forest Service budget aren’t abstractions, either. They mean something real to our land and to our lives, and a cut of up to 2,700 people in an already beleaguered and understaffed agency is genuine cause for alarm.

For those of us fortunate enough to live anywhere within the eight states of the Rocky Mountain West, the valleys, high plains, deserts and mountains aren’t the stuff of movies. We work, live and play on these lands; we depend on them.

We each have a stake in the stewardship of these lands, and in the guardian of the national forests, the Forest Service. From maintaining trails in the backcountry to fighting ferocious wildfires, the agency oversees multiple tasks on more than 96 million acres in the eight-state Rocky Mountain region.

Now, the president’s proposed budget for 2009 asks this overworked agency to do even more with far less. It would allocate $4.1 billion to the agency -- $373 million less than this year’s budget and an 8 percent cut. This is senseless. Bush’s notion of slashing 17 percent from trail maintenance and $13 million from fuels reduction is both foolish and dangerous.

By birthright, each of us has a stake in the Western lands, whether it’s 87 percent of Nevada or 28 percent of Montana. All told, an average of more than 50 percent of the land in these eight Western states is commonly owned, with Forest Service employees acting as our caretakers. Agency employees are not Washington, D.C., desk jockeys; they are our neighbors, friends and relatives. They work on the ground daily to protect this valuable public estate, and their jobs are not easy. Managing such a valued and publicly owned resource is controversial and complex. The public cacophony of both thoughtful suggestions and often rude demands has encouraged the Forest Service to become the most ecumenical of all federal agencies.

With the Western wildlands shrinking, it was inevitable that the chorus of demands would grow louder. New homes by the hundreds of thousands are being built right at the edge of the public’s forested land, and this alone has enormous implications for the Forest Service, most particularly its firefighting capabilities. Every year, it seems that more of the West is both fighting and running from raging brush and forest fires.

Yet it is astounding to note that the president’s budget proposal requests 22 percent fewer firefighting dollars than were spent by the Forest Service last year. The administration is basing that portion of the budget on a 10-year average of costs, seemingly oblivious to the reality that the costs of fighting wildfire have risen dramatically, thanks to a warming climate, changes in forest health and rampant development across the West.

Though the president calls for spending $982 million on firefighting, the agency spent $1.4 billion fighting fires last year. Ironically, shortfalls in firefighting budgets force the agency to shift money away from preventing fires, so that now, firefighting consumes nearly half the agency’s budget, leaving everything else starved of support.

Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have publicly criticized the Bush proposal. “This budget is very frustrating to me,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told reporters. “If I budgeted on my farm the way this is budgeted, I’d never get crops in the ground.”

“It’s critically important that the Forest Service has the resources to prevent wildfires before they happen,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. “It’s too bad we have to spend more money fighting fires than investing in ecological restoration.”

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., succinctly calls the Forest Service budget “an unmitigated disaster.”

These and other critics have no trouble seeing the forest for the trees. The Forest Service needs more support from Congress, not less, and more personnel to do the crucial work of tree thinning and restoration. The combination of increasing demands, budget shortfalls, manipulation by elected officials, and accusations by the radically tinged anti-government elements have resulted in a dizzying jangle of mismatched demands on the agency.

America’s green and vital public estate is our living legacy. Westerners must insist that it not be sacrificed on the altar of the federal budget.

Pat Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( A former Montana congressman, he is the Missoula-based regional director of Western Progress, a nonprofit policy institute.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Mar 04, 2008 11:36 AM

It's fine to say the Forest Service needs more money, but what about some suggestion as to where this would come from. I haven't heard anything about that part of the picture from anyone, least of all Mr Dicks. Everyone realizes we have a very serious fiscal mess, and most people agree that government needs to be cut. But nobody wants their own favorite agencies or services cut. I'm also tired of hearing that if we didn't spend money in one place we could do something better with it. We don't have the money to begin with folks! You can't print it forever.

Mar 04, 2008 01:49 PM

It's also important to point out that the administration has consistently tried to slash the budgets of federal natural resource management agencies.  Bush's FY2007 budget included a reduction for spending on endangered species (~7 million) and cut funding for national wildlife refuges despite $200 million in damage to refuges due to recent hurricanes.  This is just one example of the Bush Administrations concerted effort to reduce federal funding for natural resources and the environment--there are many, many more...

Mar 04, 2008 02:18 PM

"I'm also tired of hearing that if we didn't spend money in one place we could do something better with it. We don't have the money to begin with folks!"

 And yet we've been able to come up with 500 BILLION (that's with a "b") to fund a misguided war.  Personally, I'm all for taking money from the defense department and spreading that wealth to interior and agriculture. We need to stop defending other people's natural resources (i.e. middle eastern oil) and start defending our own!

Mar 04, 2008 07:35 PM


okay. You buy a BMW (the national forests) with all the bells and whistles (backcountry access, recreation for all, natural resource production, etc.) and then each year for 25 years cut your maintenance budget and staff -- BY 60%, and going down 10% of that again this year. Then, because you have 40% of the staff you used to have, give everyone two to three times as many tasks to do (even after cutting off some that you just can't). Look for fees, partners, volunteers, and grants to help fund the work -- the FS does that too, on top of the "regular work."

Now, ten years ago we had a balanced budget. Now we have one that is draining out its ear and the highest deficit ever. Someone might consider that we do indeed have the money -- and all of it is going (ahem) overseas. And the domestic programs (including, alas, the FS) have been taking double cuts during the last 14 years to pay for it.

There's plenty of money. Do you like where it's going?


Mar 06, 2008 02:38 PM

When you consider the Bush Administration's efforts to actually eliminate the Forest Service as a government agency via "competitive sourcing," things start to fall into place.  Cut the agency budget, cut the agency staff and what remains are 190 million plus acres with no one to properly manage those lands.

(The GAO report on the Forest Service's failed outsourcing efforts is a case study in pure greed and malevolence on the part of the Administration.  It also illustrates the incompetence of agency heads of the Forest Service to bend over forwards -- Yes, sir. May I have another sir! --  and not fight the Administration.)  

Oh, wait!  Bush cronies are waiting in the wings to take that land from the American People and convert it into commercial ventures.  The Administration made a feeble attempt at this by trying to pawn off some Forest lands onto the various states.  Of course, that would require Congressional approval, but that did not stop Bush.  The Republican Congresses turned a blind eye, while the current Democratic Congress continues to wallow with no direction.

Wildland fire fighting crosses several federal agencies, yet the Forest Service budget has to fund all of it.  A better approach might be to create a separate wildland fire fighting budget item, irrespective of the various agencies that contribute their resources. 





Mar 07, 2008 05:50 PM

I agree with Mr. Williams:  fire fighting takes up way too much of the Forest budget.  I have spent the last few years working for the forest service in the Southwest, and fire-fighting in the forest service tends to dominate not only the finances of the agency, but also the culture of its offices.  In my opinion, the forests and the people who use them would be better served by an agency whose focus was on the health of forested ecosystems and managing the ways in which humans interact there rather than on the prevention and suppression of fire.  Fire is an integral part of forest health and played a role in the evolution of forests as well as that of the species who rely on them.  Suppressing fires is done primarily for the sake of people who live in areas that are at risk from fires rather than for the benefit of the forests themselves. 

 Perhaps a new system could be created in which fighting wildfires was the responsibility of an independent agency that worked cooperatively with land agencies - not just the forest service, but also BLM, Parks Service, state parks, and the rest.  The primary role of the Forest Service should be to protect natural resources on public lands, not to protect private homes from natural cycles and events.