The first thing any new session of Congress hopes to accomplish is the designation of the coming year’s federal budget. As well as being one of the most important legislative acts, it is also one of the most contentious. Every year Congress must fund every agency and department in government. Naturally, when dealing with a multi-trillion-dollar budget, there isn’t room for everyone to get exactly what they want.
Sometimes there are cuts to education, the arts, agriculture, even the military. Recently, though, there has been a troubling trend of not providing enough financial support to combat an omnipresent threat in our forested lands: catastrophic wildfire.
As conditions become more dry and dead trees populate the landscape with increasing density (for evidence of this see California’s estimated 70 million dead and dying, a major fuels concern for foresters), the risk of catastrophic wildfire rises. At this moment, Congress has provided insufficient funds to the Forest Service for both general forest management and combating wildfires, many of which burn all summer and threaten not only our forests, but also the livelihoods of those in the neighboring communities.
Studies have estimated that the fire season has become 78 days longer since 1970. This, in combination with a lack of understanding of the need to better fund fire response, has caused the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to divert hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars away from its management budget. In 2015, the USFS announced that it would alter its budget to move $250 million from routine operations to fire suppression and emergency fire response.
This seems intuitive, even necessary, in certain ways. If the forests are experiencing more destructive wildfires more often, of course, more funds should be given to suppressing those fires. It must be a contingency already built into the USFS budget, right? Well, it’s complicated. The USFS does allot a certain percentage of its annual budget to fire suppression – usually an amount equivalent to the ten-year average of fire costs. However, when that amount is exceeded, which is becoming a yearly occurrence, the USFS “borrows” funds from other management accounts. This includes borrowing from management accounts intended to make our forests more resilient and less fire prone by performing thinning and healthy forest treatments.
The practice of “fire borrowing” has had a devastating impact on the agency’s ability to complete its mission of managing our nation’s public forestlands. To put the problem in perspective: In 1985, only 16% of the annual budget was set aside for firefighting, and this money was usually only used in fighting the small number of fires that grew past the point of rapid containment.
But in 2015, for the first time in the Forest Service’s 110-year history, fire suppression and containment took up more than 50% (52%, to be exact) of the annual budget. To make matters worse, these numbers are projected to become even more lopsided, as the USFS predicts firefighting will account for 67% of the budget by 2025.
Here are some startling figures representing the USFS programs impacted by fire borrowing:
- Vegetation and watershed management has suffered a 22% reduction in spending;
- Facilities are down 67%
- Roads are down 46%
- Trails are down 14%
- Fisheries are down 17%
- Deferred maintenance is down 95%
Foresters are concerned of course, worried that the money spent on forest fire containment is masking the underlying causes of overall slumping forest heath. It ripples outward, of course, to anyone who works and lives in the forest. Logs are burning, meaning mills can’t get enough raw materials to stay afloat. Animal life already threatened by adverse weather are being forced out of their habitats. Recreation is being halted in impacted areas.
The bottom line is fire borrowing is impacting everyone. The kicker? The solution is right in front of us: active management.
For many of the key decision makers, including those who allocate federal budgets, the idea of active management isn’t very sexy. Implementing it means a lot of work, and work means money. Those outside of impacted states can have trouble understanding the need to spend money on management when fires still rage across the landscape, but it is essential to impart to them that active, hands-on management is the solution.
Active management can help reduce the risk of catastrophic fires thus providing myriad environmental, wildlife, air quality, and water quality benefits; it can help kick-start rural economies by providing more raw materials to mills and create good paying jobs; it will generate a better economic return to the American taxpayer by increasing revenues for county governments and the U.S. Treasury while simultaneously reducing public outlays to suppress fire. By fixing fire borrowing, Congress can turn an economic and environmental ticking time bomb into a benefit for our forests and rural communities.