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.

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