By Shawn Perich
Every year, starting long before spring arrives in Minnesota and lasting into the fall, U. S. Forest Service fire fighters battle wildfires in our national forests. Most fires occur in the West, although Minnesota has seen several large fires in the Superior National Forest during the past decade.
Western fires are fueled (pardon the pun) by circumstances outside forest managers’ control. A widespread infestation of mountain pine beetles has killed millions of conifers throughout the Rocky Mountains. As if millions of acres of dead standing timber weren’t bad enough, a prolonged drought has kept much of the West tinder dry. When wildfires ignite in such conditions, they rapidly become infernos.
Fighting fires that consume thousands of acres of forest is a major operation, because such fires may threaten communities, valuable timber and other amenities. Wildfire control requires resources that include trained fire fighters, specialized aircraft, support teams and more. And fighting fires costs the government lots of money. The U.S Forest Service is responsible for about 70 percent of the federal government spending on wildland fire-fighting. Most of the remainder comes from the Dept. of Interior.
In fact, fires are so expensive the Forest Service must borrow from other portions of its own budget to pay for them. The agency actually calls the practice “fire borrowing.” Congress generally gives “borrowed”money back to the Forest Service. But in the short term, national forest projects across the country are stalled or not completed because the money budgeted for them has been “borrowed” to pay for a wild fire somewhere else. The situation has hamstrung national forest management and, ironically, may be placing our forests at greater risk of fire in the future.
Over the long term, another change has occurred with Forest Service spending. In 1995, the agency spent 16 percent of its budget on fire-fighting. Two decades later, fire-fighting now consumes 42 percent of the annual budget. Why the big change? The answer is simple. Wildfires are occurring at greater frequency and higher intensity. Remember the fires that burned up big areas in Colorado and Arizona. How about the Pagami Creek Fire in the Boundary Waters?
Spending more on fire means the Forest Service is spending less on other endeavors, including those that benefit hunters, anglers and other recreational users. The agency recently released a report detailing the changes in funding and staffing that have occurred over the last 20 years. Just about every category other than fire-fighting is in a downward spin.
The cornerstone of national forest activities, the Vegetation and Watershed Management Program, has seen funding reduced by 22 percent since 2001. This includes activities such as timber harvest and reforestation, which means the effects are felt by everyone from communities that depend upon wood harvested from national forests to hunters who know young forests provide habitat for game species. Less funding also means the agency is limited in its ability to address invasive species, insects and disease. Simply put, the funding cut means our national forests are not as healthy as they ought to be.
The wildlife and fisheries habitat management budget declined 17 percent during the same time period. This has compromised the agency’s recovery efforts for threatened and endangered species. The report estimates there has been a 40 percent reduction in the Forest Service’s annual performance accomplishments from what would have been possible with sustained funding. One of the losses has been the completion of watershed restoration and habitat improvement projects through contracts with small businesses, resulting not only less work done on the ground, but less economic activity in small rural communities.
Even more dismal is the 46 percent spending reduction for the National Forest Road System. This road network provides the principal access to national forests and is thus crucial for everything from emergency response to commercial and recreational access. It is not an exaggeration to say the road system is falling apart, leading to restrictions and closures of passenger and high clearance roads. Thirteen percent of the system’s bridges are current structurally deficient and the average age of all bridges is 50 years. Deteriorating roads also lead to erosion and other environmental concerns.
The list goes on, but you get the point. Even though it is necessary, the increased spending on fire fighting that has occurred during the last 20 years greatly diminished traditional management in our national forests. A fair argument may be made that something has to change in the national forest funding scheme. We have to count on Congress to make that happen.
Last week, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership convened a teleconference on a piece of legislation called the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. Introduced by bipartisan sponsors in the House and Senate, the act would remove wildfire funding from the Forest Service budget so that firefighting would be funded in a way similar to other natural disasters, such as hurricanes. The act would not add money to the federal budget and would eliminate fire-borrowing.
Proponents of the act say the Forest Service would be able to do a significantly better job with other management activities without the disruptive effects of fire-borrowing. The agency also could start to address the long term process of restoring portions of its budget that have diminished due to the need to pay for fire-fighting. The end result would be better management of our national forests for wildlife and fisheries, recreation, timber production and reducing the risk of wildfire.
The TCRP’s teleconferees were hopeful the bill will make it through Congress—sometime. It is unlikely anything will occur prior to the November election, although the bill might move in the lame duck session afterward. The big “if’ is whether the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act will move forward as a clean bill or one that is loaded down with add-ons that make it politically unpalatable even to its supporters. Given the track record of Congress, it’s hard to be hopeful.