Without additional funds to offset the cost of fighting wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service will again have to use funds originally for other forest management purposes.
Last month, Secretary of the Agriculture Tom Vilsack released a report showing the growth of firefighting costs in the past 20 years and plummeting funds available for other Forest Service programs.
Since 1995, funding for fire preparedness and suppression activities has grown from 16 percent of the whole Forest Service annual budget to 42 percent of 2014’s funding. Vilsack’s report did adjust annual funding levels to the equivalent of 2014 dollars.
This increase in funding was not simply overall growth in the agency’s budget. Concurrently, funding for activities on the National Forest System, research and capital improvement, including maintenance, all declined as a percentage of the total Forest Service budget during this period.
“Climate change, drought, fuel buildup, and insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America’s forests,” Vilsack said in a press release. “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.”
In 16 of the past 20 years, funds needed for firefighting have exceeded the original appropriated level. Until Congress provides supplemental funds, the Forest Service must transfer or borrow funds from other programs.
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.”
In July, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testified that a bill, similar to the administration’s proposal, would “… stop fire transfers and that disruptive process and promote stable funding source. … Each time the agency transfers money out of non-fire accounts to pay for fire suppression there are significant and lasting impacts across the entire Forest Service.”