On August 20, the USDA released a report on the effects to other U.S. Forest Service (USFS) program areas from ‘fire borrowing’, wherein funds are reprogrammed from other programs mid-year, to cover wildfire fighting deficits. Due to increasing drought, disease, pests, as well as increasing numbers of communities at the urban-wildlife intersection, the total wildfire area has tripled since 1980 and the number of fires has doubled in the same time period. Climate change is exacerbating wildfire risk -- the U.S. National Climate Assessment predicts that for every 1.8 degree F of surface temperature rise, the Western wildfire area may quadruple. Subsequently, suppression costs have grown from 16 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1995 to 42 percent today, robbing other Forest Service programs, many of which deal with hazardous fuels and forest health – which are important in reducing wildfire risk. USDA’s latest report details the widespread effects that fire borrowing practices have had on the Forest Service’s ability to manage federal lands across the United States.
Prior to the August recess, Congress held a hearing on the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) and other proposed measures to fully fund wildfire costs. If passed, WDFA would create a separate emergency management fund for wildfires which would free up dollars to existing programs that are already prepared to address thinning and forestry management needs. FEMA funds would be tapped once wildfire treatment costs had passed a benchmark of 70 percent of a 10-year average, similar to how other disaster recovery efforts are funded. The funding mechanism is similar to the one advanced in President Obama’s FY2015 budget proposal. Currently, the Department of Interior and the Forest Service are the only two federal entities that are responsible for the entire burden of wildfire suppression. At a hearing in July, several Senators lamented the ill-effects of fire borrowing in every state, and the USDA report provides additional evidence that fire borrowing has severely damaged forest health and wildfire resilience, as well as other national forest needs, such as roads, capital improvements, and recreation activities. Prior to recess, WDFA (S. 1875), introduced by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Crapo (R-ID) had 15 co-sponsors, and the companion bill in the House had 104 co-sponsors (HR 3992).
On Wednesday, USDA Secretary Vilsack restated his support for a measure such as WDFA, which would allow the truly worst wildfires to be treated as emergencies. Currently, the worst one percent of wildfires account for 30 percent of the wildfire budget. Vilsack commented, “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.” Earlier this summer, the Forest Service released a state-by-state report that details the myriad of programs that have been cut in each state because of fire borrowing. This subsequent report further details the programs that have been cut to free up funding for wildfire costs, including:
- Vegetation and Watershed Management Program, a key program for forest, soil, water, and rangeland restoration, has been cut 22 percent since 2001.
- Maintenance and improvements to 21,600 recreation sites and 23,100 buildings has been cut by two-thirds since 2001. The Forest Service has a deferred maintenance backlog of $5.5 billion – and includes projects such as dam integrity, water quality and other projects that affect human safety.
- A 13 percent cut to recreation and wilderness programs that support tourism and jobs. According to the USDA, visits to national forests alone add $13 billion to the U.S. economy each year.
- Fisheries and wildlife management has been cut by 17 percent.
- Funds dedicated to research have been cut by $36 million between 2003 and 2013.
- A 35 percent decrease to Forest Service land management staff, with a 110 percent increase in staff dedicated solely to wildfires.
According to the Forest Service report, their role as stewards of the Nation’s forests has been severely crippled by worsening wildfire seasons. And forests are not the only affected entity – public lands are responsible for 20 percent of U.S. fresh water, valued at approximately $2.7 billion per year. The Forest Service has made it clear that this is not simply a ‘western issue’, but one that affects every state. EESI, along with over 230 diverse organizations in the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solutions, agree that WDFA – a revenue neutral solution – is the best way to address the very worst wildfires, in order to protect human safety, water quality, species habitat and forest health.
In a joint statement, Secretary Vilsack and Shaun Donovan, the new Director of the Office of Management and Budget, urged Congress to pass the bipartisan WDFA without delay, writing “This is not merely a concern for future generations; it will hurt us right now, this year .. the Forest Service will soon run out of money and will be forced to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from other programs in order to put out the fires … The current system is untenable, dangerous, and simply irresponsible.” The Forest Service already has the tools ready to protect forest health, but its ability to do so has been greatly hindered by forest borrowing. It is time to end this destructive practice, and reclassify the worst wildfires as natural disasters.
For more information see:
Skyrocketing Fire Costs, USDA