As the U.S. Forest Service spends more money each year on fighting wildfires, less and less is available for the programs and projects that can help prevent fires and mitigate fire damage.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new report showing that as the cost of fighting forest fires has rapidly increased over the last 20 years, the budgets for other forest programs, including those that can help prevent and mitigate fire damage, have substantially shrunk. The Forest Service’s firefighting appropriation has rapidly risen as a proportion of the Forest Service’s overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today, forcing cuts in other budget areas.
“Climate change, drought, fuel buildup and insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America’s forests,” Vilsack said. “In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combating fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago. This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies.”
Those efforts are a large part of the research program here at the Forest Products Laboratory. Finding valuable uses for the small-diameter and beetle-killed trees that are overcrowding America’s forests creates incentive for businesses, often in rural communities, to take on thinning and restoration work. Such projects can improve forest health while boosting rural economies and providing valuable materials, from green building products to nanocellulose.
Vilsack noted that on top of the budget reductions outlined in the new report, the Forest Service’s non-fire program budgets are affected by “fire borrowing.” Funds spent on fire suppression have exceeded the allocated amount in all but four years since 2000. In these cases, the shortfall is covered through transferring, or “borrowing” additional funds from Forest Service programs that have already been cut over the last 20 years. Secretary Vilsack renewed his request to Congress to allow an existing disaster fund to provide resources to fight catastrophic fires in years when Forest Service and Department of Interior fire costs exceed the amount Congress has budgeted, rather than forcing borrowing from non-fire programs.
“Bipartisan proposals to fund catastrophic fire like other natural disasters could help ensure that efforts to make forests more healthy and resilient and support local tourism economies aren’t impacted as significantly as they have been in recent years,” Vilsack said. “These proposals don’t increase the deficit, they just budget smarter by allowing existing natural disaster funding to be used in cases of catastrophic wildfire.”
The report shows the extent to which many Forest Service program budgets have been cut even before borrowing occurs to accommodate for the rapid rise in firefighting costs in the past 20 years. For example,
- Funding for the Vegetation and Watershed Management Program – a cornerstone for forest, rangeland, soil and water restoration, enhancement activities, and a key factor in post-fire restoration – has been cut by 22 percent since 2001. This has reduced the Forest Service’s ability to prevent and limit the spread of invasive species, which can weaken forest health and make forests more susceptible to fire.
- Maintenance and capital improvements on approximately 21,600 recreation sites and 23,100 research and other administrative buildings has been reduced by two-thirds since 2001.
- Support for recreation, heritage, and wilderness activities that connect the public with our natural lands and support tourism and thousands of jobs (visitors to national forests contributed more than $13 billion to America’s economy each year) has been cut by 13 percent.
- Wildlife and fisheries habitat management has been reduced by 17 percent, limiting recovery efforts for threatened and endangered species.
- Research funding has declined by over $36 million in the ten year period ending in 2013.
While fire staffing has increased 110 percent since 1998, staffing for those dedicated to managing National Forest Service lands has decreased 35 percent over the same period.
Vilsack said the average number of fires on Federal lands has more than doubled since 1980 and the total area burned annually has tripled. He said that climate change, population growth near forests, and brush and fuel buildup have drastically increased wildfire severity and the cost of fighting them.
Vilsack’s request to change the way catastrophic fire costs are funded is included in the Obama Administration’s proposed budget and is supported by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. The change means that in years when the cost of fighting wildfires exceeds the firefighting budget provided to the Forest Service by Congress, additional resources would be provided from an existing fund already in place to help provide emergency funding for natural disasters, rather than forcing the Forest Service to take money from other programs designed to protect forest health.