Burning down the house

Bush administration proposes sweeping cuts to community fire programs

  • Jim Frederick evacuates his home in Beulah, Colorado, fleeing the 2005 Mason Fire. The Bush administration is cutting programs that help local communities defend themselves from wildfire.

    AP World Wide

When Bush administration officials talk about their work in Western forests, they say they’re proudest of their efforts to protect communities from wildfire. But the administration has a hard time putting its money where its mouth is.

President Bush’s 2007 budget proposal raises federal firefighting funds to $1 billion, up $82 million from the 2006 budget. That increase, though, comes at the expense of programs that help states and communities prevent and fight fire on non-federal lands. Those programs could end up with a total of only $193 million, a $63 million cut from the 2006 budget.

That’s bad management, argues Wilderness Society Fire Program Coordinator Tom Fry, because reducing fire risk on federal land does little good if adjacent state and private land is still loaded with tinder. Many Western forests, public and private, are hot to burn, due to a century of over-cutting and fire suppression.

Firefighting and fuel reduction on public lands take top priority, says Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, because those lands are the federal government’s responsibility. "In a deficit budget, you have to make tough decisions," Rey says.

Cuts hurt communities

The largest cut in the batch, $23 million, is slated for the Forest Service’s State Fire Assistance program. That money generally goes through state foresters into a variety of firefighting, education, planning and prevention programs, says Lisa Dale, the governmental affairs director for the Council of Western State Foresters. It’s also the most obvious source of federal funding for community wildfire-protection plans, says Dale, which the administration lauds as one of the major accomplishments of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. (HCN, 4/17/06: The War on Wildfire).

"A cut to State Fire Assistance absolutely will affect community plans," says Richard Remington, a consultant with Logan Simpson Design, which has helped put together wildfire protection plans for 30 Arizona communities.

The fund gets fuel-reduction projects going on non-federal land. Communities across the West can apply for State Fire Assistance grants to fund planning and to clear small trees and brush near homes and businesses, where the danger to life and property is greatest. "Many of these small communities don’t have the resources or tax base to treat hundreds of acres themselves," says Remington.

It’s "seed money," says Everett Warnock, chair of the Prescott Area Wildland/Urban Interface Commission. The Arizona communities under the Yavapai wildfire protection plan have used their own funds to more than double the $1.8 million in State Fire Assistance grants they’ve received since 2001. That money helps create fire-safe spaces around homes, train firefighters and attract sawmills and businesses that make thinned trees into pellets for woodstoves. The ultimate goal, says Warnock, is to equip the communities to handle the problem themselves.

Another community-level program up for cuts is the Forest Service’s Economic Action Program. Part of the reason that thinning and fuel-treatment projects are expensive is that few businesses can turn small-diameter trees into profits to offset costs. That program provides startup funds for biomass energy plants and other small-timber businesses to help make thinning economically viable. But funding has dropped markedly over the last five years, and in 2007, the administration proposes to nix it entirely.

A question of economics

States should make do with less federal money for fuel treatment, says Mark Rey. He says other federal programs will do a better job getting money on the ground than the community fire programs. The Department of Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has a much larger pool of funds to offer communities to manage and fight fire, he notes, and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency can seed small-diameter wood businesses.

But it’s not clear that those programs will do what Rey claims they will, says Fry; Homeland Security programs tend to focus on urban areas, not small communities facing wildland fires. Rural Development programs are a poor substitute for the Economic Action Program, adds Dale, because they aren’t specifically geared towards natural resources.

The budget proposal kicks off what will be months of negotiations. It’s not the first time the administration has targeted community wildfire programs, but Congress typically restores most of the funds, and may do so again this year. But Fry says that funding is already inadequate, and is declining because of incremental cuts and increasing inflation.

That may not be such a bad thing, says Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. He believes states and private landowners should carry most of the burden: "Why should taxpayers in New Jersey pay for it?"

In an ideal world, states and communities would step in with resources to tackle the problem, says Fry, "but that’s not happening, and we can’t afford to wait."

If the government supports efforts to reduce fire risk on both federal and non-federal lands, adds Dale, especially in the wildland-urban interface, the astronomical costs of firefighting should ultimately go down. "We've just gotta get more vision into this system."

The author is an HCN intern.

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