For the federal fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2015, President Barack Obama has requested a $6.5 billion budget for the U.S. Forest Service. This includes $700 million of mandatory funding and a new proposal for $850 million to supplement fire suppression costs.
Without these two items, the president’s request is $4.9 billion, $130 million less than the amount appropriated for the current fiscal year.
The request for overall management of the national forest system is $1.6 billion, an increase of nearly $154 million. Wildfire management, the largest portion of the Forest Service budget, would increase $20 million to a total of $2.4 billion. This does not include a separate request of $850 million for the expenses of the largest and most costly fires.
“The budget again proposes a new approach to wildland fire suppression. It will treat severe wildfires like other natural disasters that can draw on emergency funding rather than raiding other critical programs, like forest restoration and management, research and other activities that help manage our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire,” said Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release.
The fire management costs — both preparedness and suppression — have outgrown the remainder of the Forest Service’s budget for more than a decade. Currently, these funds are more than 50 percent of the agency’s budget compared to less than 15 percent in the 1990s.
During a year when fire costs exceeded the appropriated levels, the Forest Service must borrow funds from other parts of its budget. Since 2000, this has happened every year but two. In the worst fire years, the transfer can amount to more than $500 million.
Then the agency must request congressional approval for supplemental funding to restore the money for its original purpose. This does not always occur; consequently, for several years, the Forest Service has been proposing alternatives to provide the emergency fire funding without disrupting its other programs.
“It is subsuming the agency’s budget and jeopardizing our ability to successfully implement our full mission,” the agency said in its budget justification.
The largest fires (about 1 percent of fires) consume nearly 30 percent of the suppression costs. This year, the Forest Service has included $795 million within its suppression budget for the 70 percent of its 10-year average suppression expenses attributable to 99 percent of all fires.
The costs for the most expensive fires, or 30 percent of suppression expenses, are requested as a special appropriation, which is called the “Suppression Cap Adjustment.”
If this funding is approved, the agency believes its budget will become more stable. Access to these funds will be limited and require a declaration from the secretary of agriculture that one of several conditions has occurred and consequently, these monies are needed.
Two of the proposed conditions are a fire greater than 1,000 acres or a fire within 10 miles of a major urban area.
Despite a slight reduction to the total preparedness funding, the Forest Service said it expects to continue to implement its strategy to replace its airtankers. The proposed funding will allow the use of up to 21 airtankers; at least 15 will be next-generation airtankers.
Also, the agency is moving forward with the program to transfer seven C-130H aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Forest Service. Before the transfer is completed, the U.S. Air Force will retrofit them and install a retardant delivery system. One C-130H airtanker may be available for missions in FY 2015.
Neither the capital improvement nor land acquisition budget propose any major projects in the San Jacinto Ranger District.