Firefighting Burning up Forest Service Budget
The U.S. Forest Service is spending over half its budget fighting wildfires, according to a report released last week.
With the Forest Service’s firefighting budget projected to grow to two-thirds of the agency’s entire budget in a decade, other areas of the agency’s mission are suffering.
The agency is shedding non-fire personnel – there has been a 39 percent reduction in non-fire staff, from approximately 18,000 in 1998 to less than 11,000 in 2015 – while firefighting personnel have more than doubled.
As fire seasons have grown longer and more predictable, and more Americans are living in the wildland-urban interface – the areas near forest boundaries – the Forest Service increasingly relies on transfers of funds from non-fire program accounts to cover firefighting costs.
"Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, "but the way we fund our Forest Service hasn't changed in generations. Meanwhile, everything else suffers, from the very restoration projects that have been proven to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the future, to watershed projects that protect drinking water for 1 in 5 Americans, to recreation projects that support thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity. The time has come for Congress to change the way it funds the Forest Service."
“The release of this report is very timely based on the current hectic pace of wildfires in this country. We have been pointing out this challenge for the past few years, but we have not been able to effectively address it through our current budget process. It is important to keep the focus on this problem, ensure the discussion continues and a solution to the funding problem be found," said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
Congress has proposed bipartisan legislation, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 167; S. 235), to address the Forest Service fire funding issue. The congressional proposal is similar to one included in the president’s 2016 budget.
The legislation would end the practice of “fire transfers,” treat wildfires more like other natural disasters, and dedicate more resources to forest thinning and restoration. The Forest Service would still pay for 70 percent of fire management costs, yet for the small percentage of fires that account for the additional 30 percent of costs, the Forest Service could access disaster funding, thereby leaving additional resources in the agency budget for forest restoration and improvement activities.
"We must treat catastrophic wildfire not like a routine expense," said Secretary Vilsack, "but as the natural disasters they truly are. It's time to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs."
The Forest Service report, The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations, can be accessed here.
Posted in General News