Number Cruncher | Hungry fires leave the USFS budget starving

With climate change stringing out the dry season and human development rapidly encroaching on forest edges, wildfires are outrunning the budget.
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An Idaho wildfire incinerates sagebush and cheatgrass, an invasive species targeted by ecosystem restoration projects. Reduced funding for such programs result in more dry plant material on the ground—and more fires. Photo courtesy of Michael Bellant/BLM (Flickr).

An Idaho wildfire incinerates sagebrush and cheatgrass, an invasive species targeted by ecosystem restoration projects. Reduced funding for such programs result in more dry plant material on the ground—and more fires. Photo courtesy of Michael Bellant/BLM (Flickr).

Blazes are growing more costly – both to forests and to the Forest Service’s checkbook.

In 1991, fire suppression consumed only 13 percent of USFS allocations. Last year, it devoured over half—52 percent—for the first time, according to a 2015 USFS analysis. On average, the percent of the budget devoted to fire ticks up by 1.6 percent every year.

fire graphic 3

“Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent,” says the report.

The problem is more frequent blazes and longer warm spells. Climate change has drawn out the fire season by more than two months in the last 30 years, says Robert Bonnie, USDA’s Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment. Thanks to the warming atmosphere, precipitation and water availability are less predictable.

Human development is another problem. Urban areas have crept nearer to the forest edges, necessitating faster and more thorough fire-fighting efforts.

With more funds devoted to fire, programs dedicated to managing resources and restoring ecosystems are suffering. That means more vegetation, and in turn, more dry sticks and leaves on the ground come summer. Forests that haven’t been restored and managed properly produce more fuel to feed the next errant spark.

Restoration is necessary because we haven’t allowed those forests to develop their natural resilience.

“In the past, the ethic of the United States has been to put out every single fire,” said Bonnie. The result? “We now have denser forests in places where fire otherwise would have been a common occurrence.” More recent data supports periodic prescribed burns and selective firefighting, both for the health of the forests and for fire mitigation.

Even so, dollars allotted to habitat and vegetation management have all been in decline since the beginning of the decade. Though these programs help mitigate fire in the long run, they’ve been forced to the backburner when we need them most; flames in need of quenching demand the money that once belonged to management programs.

A ravenous fire budget also means cuts to Forest Service man-made amenities in desperate need of repairs and expansions. Funds dedicated to facilities have seen a 68 percent reduction and road dollars are down 46 percent. According to Bonnie, the USFS has a $300,000 trails backlog. The park visitor’s experience crumbles with the infrastructure.

“We are at a critical moment in the history of the Forest Service,” USFS Chief Tom Tidwell said in a press release. Without a drastic change in the allocations procedure, USFS programs will continue to burn.

Though Congress failed to agree to proposals for a long-term solution in December of 2015, another bill has surfaced. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, sponsored by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), would treat wildfire not as a regular operating expense of the USFS but as a natural disaster. Like earthquakes or hurricanes, large fire events would qualify for as-needed injections of cash from an emergency fund rather than having to scrape cash from an allotted corner of an annual budget.

The Act would free up USFS funds for more land management personnel, restoration projects, and facility maintenance, protecting the places where the outdoor industry really lives and shoring up the land against future fires.

“It may have made sense 20 years ago to not treat fire like a natural disaster,” Bonnie said. “But we have to now, or it will completely consume the forest service.”

The USFS urges you to contact your representatives in Congress in support of the Wildlife Disaster Funding Act.

“The Administration can’t fix this problem alone,” said Bonnie. “We need Congress to act, and Congress listens to local voices.”

Find your local representative at house.gov.

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