The U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) budget request of nearly $9 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2022-23 (starting Oct. 1, 2022) is $1.5 billion greater than the previous year’s budget. Nearly 40% of the increase is for Wildland Fire Management and Suppression Operations (WFMSO). The National Forest System programs will also receive another $600 million for a total of $2.2 billion. Another $60 million is being added to the USFS’s research programs.
As the number and size of wildfires continues to grow, the agency’s efforts to combat and prevent these conflagrations also has increased. The total request this year for WFMSO is nearly $4.2 billion. Ten years ago, USFS’s total funding request was $4.9 billion.
Total funding for wildland firefighting is proposed to increase about $1 billion from $3.9 billion to a request of $4.9 billion.
Of the total, $320 million is for the hazardous fuels program. Last fiscal year, hazardous fuels was appropriated $180 million and was included in the National Forest System account. Still, this request is $140 million more than that funding level.
These funds are for more hazardous fuels treatments covering 3.8 million acres of forest land. In FY 2021, USFS treated 3.7 million acres of hazardous fuels. Nearly 1.8 million acres were treated with prescribed burns.
After the president’s budget release, Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack said in a press release, “The Budget includes $390 million in additional funding to ensure ongoing support for President Biden’s direction that no firefighter is paid less than $15 per hour, hire additional firefighters, increase their pay, and convert more firefighters from temporary to permanent. These changes support USDA’s ability to confront the wildland fire crisis due to longer fire seasons associated with a changing climate.”
The budget request includes $56 million to pay all firefighters at least $15 per hour, and to support increases to base capacity levels, as well as permanent pay increases.
But an additional $334 million is added to increase the number of full-time equivalent firefighters by 25% from about 12,000 to more than 15,000.
While the net funding increase for the National Forest System account is $394 million, that includes the $180 million decrease for the transfer of the Hazardous Fuels program. In actuality, the Forest System funding will increase about $575 million.
The largest increases are $100 million for salary and benefit increases for current staff, ane $100 million for staffing to implement work authorized in several new pieces of legislation. New staffing will increase by 1,661 full-time equivalents to a total of 14,545.
This new staff is needed “… to perform land line surveys, realty management, cadastral and engineering services in support of the increase in pace and scale of the Agency’s wildland fuels reduction activities outlined in the 10-year strategy. In addition, increased capacity in engineering, recreation planning, patrol and service technicians, and grants and agreement specialists are necessary to support The Great American Outdoors Act (P.L. 116-152) as well as the portions of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that target trail and recreation infrastructure.”
The Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness programs request is an increase of $70 million, for a total of $110 million. These programs support visitor services, visitor information centers, visitor interpretive programs, recreation improvements and enrichment opportunities, and public engagement programs.
Among the planned results from this increase are the speeding up of reviewing and issuing permits for outfitters and guides. USFS also is planning to address and serve the recreational needs of the increasing numbers of new and returning visitors who want year-round activities on National Forest System as well as for Wilderness Stewardship Performance, Wilderness Character Monitoring, and critical planning processes associated with Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers.
Speaking of the entire departmental budget, Vilsack said, “… It will also help many of USDA’s agencies rebuild capacity after years of staff losses, strengthening the Department so we can better perform our duties and serve the American people. This budget proposal is a statement of intent that underscores President Biden’s commitment to the success of rural Americans and their communities.”