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Burning the Budget


Image via USFWS.

We ought to rename the U.S. Forest Service the “Forest Fire Service,” because pretty soon fighting fires is all that the agency will be able to do. Since 1995, the proportion of its budget spent on fire suppression has risen from 16 to 42 percent, according to an Agriculture Department analysis released last week. If you include secondary costs related to firefighting (such as fire suppression research), the agency now spends the majority of its money on fire.

That doesn’t leave much in the till for keeping woodlands healthy or maintaining trails, campgrounds, and the like.

Many factors have driven the increase in fires and firefighting costs (as Michael Kodas detailed in a 2012 series for OnEarth). Climate change and drought have made wildfire seasons hotter, drier, and longer, and more homes and neighborhoods are being built at the edge of our nation’s woodlands. The number of fires on federal land, where the Forest Service is responsible for fighting them, has doubled since 1980, and the area burning each year has tripled in that same time.

The result is that although the overall budget for the Forest Service has increased in recent years, spending on its non-fire responsibilities has ticked down over the past decade—a period when climate change, pests, and recreational use have all increased the cost of maintaining our public lands.

The Forest Service may also bear some responsibility for the imbalance, in the form of poor forest management policies and overzealous fire suppression. Kodas detailed the criticisms here, but in short, forest ecologists largely agree that small fires should be allowed to burn in order to incinerate brush and downed trees. That helps prevent larger blazes over time. But critics say the Forest Service, at the behest of Western politicians and private companies that sell firefighting equipment, has been over-aggressive about fire suppression, allowing all that kindling to accumulate on the forest floor, fueling massive conflagrations that are deadly, destructive, and expensive.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell rejects the criticism that his agency fights too many fires. “We focus our efforts on fires that are so extreme that they put communities or municipal watersheds at risk,” he told me in an interview. “When weather conditions allow it, we continue to use prescribed and natural burning to manage the landscape. That policy hasn’t changed.”

Regardless of where you place blame, Tidwell and his critics agree on one thing: the Forest Service is spending so much time and money trying to prevent our country from burning to the ground that it can’t get any other work done.

What kind of work? Let’s start with bugs. An outbreak of mountain pine beetles that began in 1996 has spread to over 41 million acres as climate change has expanded the beetle’s range. The insects kill approximately 100,000 pine trees in Wyoming and Colorado every day. Responsibility for controlling the beetles falls, in large part, to the Forest Service. The agency removes sick or infected trees and sprays the insecticide carbaryl in select areas. In places already denuded by the beetles, the Forest Service tries to plant new vegetation to restore the ecosystem and deter weeds.

Unfortunately, these days the agency is fighting the mountain pine beetle with about $100,000 tied behind its back. Over the last 13 years, the Forest Service’s budget for vegetation and watershed management—the segment responsible for dealing with the beetles and other pests—has dropped 22 percent, largely to accommodate firefighting.

Budget cuts aren’t just making the forest sicker—they’re also making it significantly less fun. When trees collapse onto hiking trails, someone has to remove them. That portion of the budget, however, has been slashed by more than two-thirds over the last 13 years. What’s more, a large portion of what remains in that part of the budget has shifted to building—I’ll give you one guess—fire suppression facilities. Rather than dealing with fallen trees on trails, the Forest Service closes the hiking paths to protect trekkers from injury and Uncle Sam from liability. When rebellious hikers encounter roadblocks, they blaze new, illegal trails, which upset the forest floor and increase erosion and sediment buildup in rivers and streams.

Blowing the entire budget on fire suppression is also part of a vicious cycle—a ring of fire, if you will. The Forest Service’s reduced budget to combat the beetle infestation means more trees are dying. The dead trees strewn about the forest floor provide fuel for forest fires, making them harder to control. That forces the Forest Service to spend even more money fighting fires, which further reduces the funds for combating the beetles. Now read the previous three sentences over and over in a loop, and you’ll get the idea.

The beetles, of course, aren’t the only contributors to this feedback loop. Without money to improve the roads that firefighters drive on to get to the blazes, as well as facilities to launch and service the planes and helicopters that drop fire retardant on the conflagrations (regardless of whether that’s even a good idea), fighting forest fires gets more difficult and more expensive.

The Forest Service wants to solve its budget problems by seeking emergency money from elsewhere. The Agriculture Department has asked Congress for an extra $615 million for firefighting this year, and the White House wants to add wildfires to the list of natural disasters eligible for money from a $12 billion emergency relief fund set up after Hurricane Sandy. That would also require Congressional approval, and although many Western lawmakers are hot for action, so far no vote has been taken.

Critics of Forest Service strategy argue that such a solution would be throwing good money after bad. “Giving the agency a new big pot of money to put out fires, without strong rules about how to spend it, will come back to haunt us later,” says Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney with NRDC (which publishes OnEarth). Lawrence argues that additional money would lead to even more over-aggressive firefighting, and larger and more expensive fires in the future.

We need a solution, though, and soon. “From 2002 to 2014,” Tidwell told me, “we had to shift $500 million from other programs. Think about what we could do with that money in terms of trail maintenance, decommissioning roads, and improving fisheries and wildlife habitats.”

The man has a point. It’s hard to think of a worse use of $500 million than setting it on fire.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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