A new federal report this week shows how dollars meant for forest restoration and wildfire preparedness often get diverted to fighting wildfires. It’s been that way for years, and as fires get bigger and more expensive to fight, the problem only gets worse. As we reported last summer:
“Just a few days before (the Rim Fire scorched Yosemite), U.S. Department of Agriculture Chief Tom Tidwell had ordered an immediate Forest Service spending freeze for restoration programs, employee travel, and other personnel costs to help funnel an additional $600 million into the agency’s suppression account, which had been bled down to a mere $50 million, about half of what’s typically needed to cover a single week at Level 5, reports E&E News. Such borrowing has happened six other times in the last decade, totaling $2.7 billion. Of that Congress eventually restored $2.3 billion, “but not without disruptions to important agency programs” – many of them the kind that could help lessen fire risks in the future. The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to help head off that dynamic by creating a reserve fund for firefighting, but it doesn’t appear to be working, perhaps because of fluctuating appropriations.”
The Forest Service now spends 40 percent of its budget on firefighting, compared to just 15 percent in the early 90s. This year, it expects to spend about $1.5 billion on suppression, and will probably overrun the fire budget by close to $500 million, according to a May report from Interior. To keep up, the agency transfers funding from other forest management programs – which means that all kinds of important projects, including those meant to reduce fire danger, go begging.
Here are a few examples (from the USDA report) for the 11 Western states of Forest Service programs that were discontinued or delayed in 2012 and 2013 because their money got slurped up by firefighting overruns:
• Funds needed for preparation of the 4‐FRI and Southwest Jemez Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration projects were diverted.
• In the Verde watershed, fuels treatment projects to reduce potential for catastrophic fires, provide increased livestock forage, and improve habitat for goshawk (forest sensitive species) and Chiricahua leopard frog (national Threatened & Endangered) were deferred.
• The following land acquisition projects were not funded: Leech Lake on the Mendocino; Sierra Nevada Inholdings on the Tahoe and Eldorado; Santa Anna Mountains on the Cleveland; and Big Sur Ecosystems on the Los Padres.
• Long‐term restoration activities and projects on forests damaged by fire and third party negligence – including road and trail repair, recreation facility repair, watershed and stream restoration and improvements, habitat (animal/plant) restoration and protection, cultural site restoration and protection, invasive weed treatments and reforestation – were deferred or canceled.
• The Aquatic Nuisance Program (invasive species) with the State of Colorado was not funded.
• Over $300,000 in wildlife management projects were delayed, deferred or canceled.
• The Sawtooth National Forest was unable to meet noxious weed commitments and reduced their hazardous fuels and wildlife habitat treatment projects.
• A $180,000 “State and Private Forestry Redesign” project developed in partnership with States and other partners on non‐federal lands to improve forest resilience was canceled.
• Site investigation work at the Libby Asbestos Area on the Kootenai National Forest was delayed.
• A large mine clean up and monitoring project at Beal Mountain was eliminated.
• Mission critical grazing work, including the ability to complete fence work on the Santa Rosa District of the Humboldt‐Toiyabe National Forest, was not completed. As a result, grazing was not allowed in this district.
• Road maintenance work on the Humboldt‐Toiyabe National Forest was unable to be completed due to the inability to purchase equipment.
• Road decommissioning projects being planned for Travel Management implementation on the Santa Fe National Forest were canceled.
• On the Carson National Forest, oil and gas projects required to meet the timeframes of the Energy Policy Act were delayed or canceled.
• On the Willamette National Forest, the $97,840 Gray Larison and Gold Coffeepot Road Storage projects were deferred. The impact likely will result in road failures and culvert washouts that result in sediment loads reaching fish streams. This could result in negative impacts to Bull Trout and other fish populations in the affected watershed.
• Over $170,000 in trails projects that help increase visitor enjoyment of National Forests were canceled or deferred.
• The Bonneville Shoreline Trail land acquisition project on the Uinta‐ Wasatch‐Cache National Forest was not funded.
• The Ashley National Forest was unable to provide information to the public; including compliance for travel management, fire, and emergencies.
• Almost $40,000 in critical road and trail restoration projects were deferred, resulting in negative impacts to water quality and aquatic organism habitat.
• Almost $90,000 in trails projects that help increase visitor enjoyment of National Forests were canceled or deferred.
• Administration of Recreation Special Use permits for outfitter‐guides were deferred and ski area applications for four-season use improvements were deferred.
• On the Bridger‐Teton National Forest, a fully handicap accessible recreation facility project was not completed.
What’s being done to fix this problem? Well, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would go a long way toward ending the raiding. The bill would give Interior and the Forest Service access to emergency fire-fighting funds that aren’t part of their discretionary budgets (similar to the way that FEMA can tap emergency money for major natural disasters). The act has strong bipartisan support and is backed by conservation, timber, tribal, ranching and recreation interests. And President Obama’s 2015 budget follows the Act’s lead in improving fire disaster funding (he pitched his plan at this week's meeting of the Western Governors Association and got a "positive response" from the guvs).
Hopefully we’ll soon see an end to robbing Peter to pay Paul – and an increase in the ability of public-lands agencies to do the rest of their jobs.
Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News. She tweets @Peterson_Jodi.