At its House Appropriations hearing, the U.S. Forest Service received a lot of sympathy for the dilemma that the high cost of fire suppression has had on funding for other agency programs.
During the hearing, Tom Tidwell, Forest Service chief, stressed, “You can’t budget for wildland fire … We just have to have a different approach. I can’t predict the exact amount that we’ll need for fiscal year 2017.”
The Forest Service’s total budget request is more than $4.9 billion. But firefighting expenses have grown from 16 percent of the budget to more than 50 percent in fiscal year 2015, which ended Sept. 30, 2015.
Committee members understood and agreed with Tidwell’s concerns. Although the oversight committees have held hearings on the issue and proposed various bills to alter it, Congress has not passed legislation to change the process.
“A total of $2.5 billion is requested for wildland fire management. This represents nearly 50 percent of the entire Forest Service budget request. In addition, a budget cap adjustment of $864 million is requested,” said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA), chair of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations subcommittee, which was reviewing the Forest Service 2016-17 budget request. “This subcommittee continues to be concerned about the costs of fighting wildfire and the effects it has on Forest Service budgets, programs and management.”
Calvert was not the only subcommittee member who expressed support for the Forest Service’s proposal to modify the funding mechanism for wildfire fighting.
Rep. Betty McCollum, (D-Minn), and the ranking minority member on the subcommittee, said, “We need a more reliable way for funding wildfires that doesn’t continue to threaten other programs … We need to better balance the cost of fire suppression with resources needed for other programs.”
Currently, when the Forest Service needs more funding, which has been almost annually for the past two decades, it has to curb its expenses for other programs to pay the firefighting bill. Then it requisitions Congress for reimbursement of the funding taken from the other forestry programs.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) urged Tidwell not to transfer any programmatic funds to cover costs of wildfire fighting as a way of getting Congress to address the problem.
“My goal is to stop the transfer and spend less money on wildfire,” he added.
As part of the administration’s fiscal year 2016-17 budget request, legislation to change the way funds are provided for fighting wildfires has again been submitted.
We propose a budget cap adjustment to fund suppression costs for large and complex fires,” Tidwell told the subcommittee. “Suppression would be funded at a level that covers 98 percent of the fires we fight, or 70 percent of our 10-year average suppression costs. Remaining fire costs would be funded through an ‘off-budget’ fire-suppression cap adjustment.”
The request for next fiscal year includes $874 million for fire suppression activities and $864 million for the cap adjustment. Another $384 million has been requested for hazardous fuels work. These funds would be directed toward projects in the wildland-urban interface and cover 1.8 million acres.