On October 8, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry held a hearing on the 2015 wildfire season. The hearing comes at the end of one of the worst wildfire seasons in history, and at a time when wildfire seasons have been increasingly destructive as global temperatures rise. At the hearing, lawmakers fell into two camps: those who believe the escalating cost of battling wildfires is the root cause of the Forest Service’s inability to manage forests, and those who feel the Forest Service is incapable of properly managing federal lands, regardless of the budget issue.
In truth, the Forest Service is caught in a catch-22: the agency doesn’t have the funds to perform the forest restoration projects that would increase forest resilience to wildfires.
Two bills are circulating that address wildfire suppression costs. The first is the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 167 and S. 235), which would create a separate emergency disaster fund, to be administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This fund would address the very worst 1 percent of wildfires. WDFA has broad bipartisan support and is also supported by the White House. Proponents say it would free up the Forest Service to do its job – manage forests.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (H.R. 2467), passed the House along party lines, and is awaiting consideration by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. H.R. 2467 would block fire borrowing unless the Forest Service exceeded projected outlays, but allow the Forest Service to more expeditiously timber federal lands.
Supporters of H.R. 2467, including the timber industry and a political coalition consisting primarily of Republicans, claim increased timbering in forests will make them less susceptible to forest fire. In a statement of administrative policy, the White House sharply opposed the bill, stating that it would "undermine collaborative forest restoration, environmental safeguards, and public participation."
During the hearing, Ranking Member Lujan Grisham criticized H.R. 2467, commenting that “drought, climate change and poorly managed forests” have all contributed to the issue, “but the Forest Service currently lacks the resources necessary to mitigate any of these factors … First and foremost, we must fix the wildfire budget so the Forest Service can do the work that everyone expects them to do.”
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified that the Forest Service is doing the best it can with its available resources: "We accomplished more than 4.6 million acres of restoration that improves the health of our forests and watersheds in 2014, an increase of nine percent compared to 2011. We are eager and poised to do even more.” But he noted, “We have to fix the funding issue. There is no question.” According to Tidwell:
- 9 million acres burned in 2015, 5 million alone in Alaska
- 2,500 homes were destroyed
- 13 wildfire fighters died in the line of duty
- Consumed 52 percent of the Forest Service budget (compared to 16 percent in 1995)
- $1.7 billion was spent in total suppression costs, including $700 million in fire borrowing
- Wildfire costs grew by $115 million in the 2015 Financial Year, thus reducing other programs by the same amount
- At the season’s height, wildfire suppression consumed $243 million in a single week
By the Forest Service’s calculations, if left unchecked, wildfire fighting will make up over 67 percent of the agency’s budget by 2025. Tidwell urged the committee to “stop the erosion” that is occurring in the Forest Service’s budget, due to the damaging practice of fire borrowing, and the rising costs of wildfire suppression.
For more information see:
Public Hearing: 2015 fire season, Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry