In January, when President Barack Obama submitted his budget requests for fiscal year 2015-16, he included a recommendation to change the funding mechanism for federal firefighting costs.
In conjunction with the budget package, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “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.”
Currently, when the U.S. Forest Service needs more funding, which has been almost annually for the past two decades, it has to curb its expenditures for other programs to pay the firefighting bill and then request Congress to reimburse the other forestry programs.
But the Omnibus Appropriations bill did not include the provisions to safeguard funding for other Forest Service programs.
On Dec. 17, the night before the Omnibus bill was approved, Vilsack wrote letters to the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, expressing his disappointment with no modification in the funding mechanism and saying he will no longer transfer dollars from other accounts for wildfire suppression.
Further, he expressed frustration and vowed to stop borrowing and transferring funds from other programs for wildfire suppression.
“I am directing the Forest Service to aggressively use the funding provided in FY 2016 to support forest management, restoration, research and partnership work that will help us get ahead of the catastrophic wildfire problem,” he told both Appropriations Committee chairs.
“Further, I will not authorize transfers from restoration and resilience funding,” he asserted, then stated his challenge to legislators. “If the amount Congress appropriated in FY 2016 is not sufficient to cover fire suppression costs, Congress will need to appropriate additional funding on an emergency basis.”
In July 2014 and this summer, both the Senate and House held hearings to discuss the administration’s proposal to treat wildfire similar to other natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods. This would provide automatic funding if costs exceed the appropriated level.
A change in the funding process is needed as the cost of fighting wildfires has continued to grow. It now is nearly two-thirds of the Forest Service budget. However, the Appropriations committees are unwilling to authorize an unlimited amount so they have usually provided funding equal to the average firefighting cost for the previous 10 years.
But costs are exceeding these levels. For one week this past summer, the Forest Service needed $243 million for firefighting throughout the U.S. This has taken a toll on other programs. Now the administration, led by Vilsack, is balking at continuing a process hey believe harms the agency’s other missions.
“The future trend will be hotter, longer, more severe and, ultimately, more costly fire seasons,” Vilsack wrote. “This directly impacts the Forest Service’s ability to fund other critical work such as restoration that can reduce wildfire threat, drinking-water area protection and recreation investments, not just in the West, but across the country.”
“We will continue to protect lives, property and our natural resources but it is the responsibility of Congress to ensure those resources are sufficient each year so the Forest Service is able to accomplish the full complement of its work,” said Matt Herrick, the department’s director of communications. If the resources provided by Congress in the FY 2016 spending bill are not sufficient, additional emergency appropriations to cover that critical work will be necessary … we will notify Congress well in advance if an emergency supplemental appropriation is required.”
The appropriation for fire suppression for fiscal year 2016 is $1.6 billion, nearly $600 million more than last year, but even the additional dollars wouldn’t have been sufficient for the 2015 fire season costs, according to Herrick.