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 (hcn.org). A former Montana congressman, he is the Missoula-based regional director of Western Progress, a nonprofit policy institute.
High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.