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Secretary's Column: Skyrocketing Fire Costs

Posted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan in Forestry
Feb 21, 2017
Spiraling firefighting costs have shrunk the budget for critical forest and rangeland priorities, including investing in Forest Service programs designed to mitigate the impacts of wildfire.
Spiraling firefighting costs have shrunk the budget for critical forest and rangeland priorities, including investing in Forest Service programs designed to mitigate the impacts of wildfire.

Over the past twenty years, a changing climate, population growth near forests and rangelands, and the buildup of brush and other fuels have dramatically increased the severity of wildfires and the damage that they cause to our natural lands and communities. Year after year, fire seasons grow longer and longer, destroying homes, threatening critical infrastructure and the watersheds that provide clean drinking water to millions of people. Between 1980 and 2011, the average annual number of fires on Federal land more than doubled, and the total area burned annually tripled. Even as fire seasons have grown, the way we pay to fight these fires remains unchanged – and fundamentally broken.

The Forest Service’s firefighting appropriation has rapidly increased as a proportion of the Forest Service’s overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today. As the costs of wildfires have spiraled out of control, it has shrunk the budget of other Forest Service programs, taking millions of dollars from other critical forest health and land management priorities in order to pay for them. What’s more, often the programs we are forced to divert funds from are the very programs which help to mitigate the impact of wildfires.

Today, the Department of Agriculture is releasing the Fire Transfer Impact Trends report detailing in clear terms just what this broken practice has cost us over the past twenty years – and what it will continue to cost us in the future if we don’t tackle this problem now.

These spiraling fire costs have left the government unable to sufficiently invest in critical forest and rangeland priorities, including:

  • restoration projects designed specifically to reduce the  risk of catastrophic wildfire while restoring forests to be healthier and more resilient;
  • public access and tourism on public forests that stimulates local economies;
  • capital investments and maintenance to improve access and infrastructure on our Federal lands; and,
  • research and development to continue to improve the science behind our forest restoration, conservation and fire prevention and firefighting decisions.

On top of the budget reductions outlined in the new report, the Forest Service’s non-fire program budgets are affected by “fire borrowing.”  Funds spent on fire suppression have exceeded the allocated amount in all but four years since 2000.  In these cases, the shortfall is covered through transferring, or “borrowing” additional funds from Forest Service programs that have already been cut over the last 20 years.

The Forest Service recently released a state-by-state report providing examples of how funding for local wildfire preparedness, forest restoration, and other activities in nearly every state across the country has been used to instead fight fires, due to shortfalls in wildfire suppression budgets.

Unless we act, the problem is going to keep getting worse.

The President has put forward a common-sense plan to address this problem, modeled on congressional proposals with broad bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. This proposed reform would change the way we fund the most catastrophic wildfires, treating them the same as other natural disasters. This approach would provide certainty in fighting wildfires and investing in other areas that promote healthier and more resilient forests. And it would do so in a fiscally responsible way that lives within the overall funding levels already authorized by Congress.

This is not merely a concern for future generations; it will hurt us right now, this year. If we see the kind of severe fire activity that we currently project, the Forest Service will soon run out of money and will be forced to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from other programs in order to put out the fires.  A fix is needed, and needed urgently. The current system is untenable, dangerous, and simply irresponsible.  We urge Congress to act on this bipartisan proposal without delay.

Tom Vilsack is the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. Shaun Donovan is the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Category/Topic: Forestry

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Tom Asplund
Aug 21, 2014

Secretary Vilsack, I stand amazed that a good partial solution to reducing the high fuel load in our forests doesn't include allowing private enterprise (out of work loggers) and even private citizens to partner with the Forest Service in removing dead and downed timber for biomass use or firewood. The Forest Service in Northern Minnesota where I live seems to be more adversarial and highly prescriptive in managing our forests than being willing to engage private citizens to help them manage the resource. Many of us burn wood to heat our homes and would be glad to secure necessary free or nominal fee permits to clean up the heavily accumulated fuel load on the forest floors around our communities to help cut the fire danger. The Forest Service could provide some oversight to ensure that the usual very small minority were not abusing the system. The results would be remarkable in a few years. The Forest Service needs an image change. Right now many of us view them as elitist and obstructionist with good reason.

Aug 22, 2014

Tom--as alluded to in the article, our national forests and other protected areas are being threatened more and more by encroaching development. Obstructionists, perhaps, but frankly, I am glad that the federal government has stepped in to protect some of these areas so that our kids and grandkids can hopefully enjoy the beautiful nature areas that we and generations before us have enjoyed. Personally, I need places like this to hike and enjoy nature. I would lose my sanity if I had to spend all of my time in a big city amongst the pollution, heavy traffic, and tailgaters. It may seem like we have a lot of these places, but we are losing our open spaces--forests, farmland, wetlands, etc. at a pretty rapid rate. At this rate, I hate to think what our world will look like 100 years from now--probably a lot more paved over with ugly abandoned factories, boarded up shopping malls, and polluted streams and lakes.

Aug 23, 2014

John, we value the very same things. Our forests are national treasures and they are dwindling. However, for any government entity to try to do the heavy lifting completely by themselves without engaging private citizens who fundamentally support most of what they are doing is misguided. Throwing more of our tax dollars at it is not always the answer. "Empire building" certainly makes it worse. Municipalities, schools and countless other organizations are learning that for them to survive in these challenging times, they need to tap into and harness clear-thinking local citizens to help them accomplish their important work. The Forest Service would profit from learning the same lesson.
Many of us were out cutting browse for the deer back in the heavy snow years of the early 60s off our now antique snowmobiles because it was the right thing to do then and still is! The "government" was a group of concerned private citizens.
My point was and still is that a partial solution to reducing our fuel/fire load is for the Forest Service to tap into the energy that a lot of us local citizens have and let us help them do the right things to help solve the problem.
Many of these government entites forget that they work for us! Seems pretty hard for some of them to remember.
As with most complex issues these days, there is no single magic bullet (renewable energy for example!)solutions. It takes partnership and multiple strategies to succeed.

Kurt Atkinson
Aug 24, 2014

One reason not mentioned by the Secretary in his first sentence for why there is a build-up of brush and other fuels on our federal lands is the lack of active forest management across a broad landscape. Prior to the "walk in the forest" by President Bill Clinton in Arkansas in the 1980s, our national forests were generally well-managed, and timber production and timber harvesting were common practices. Careful timber harvesting done according to an approved plan created jobs in the local economy, supported wood processing plants and kept many forestlands thinned and healthy. The advent of environmentalists' influence on federal land management policy, with curtailment of most timber harvesting for wood products closed the mills and has led to fuel buildup, and overcrowded and unhealthy forests plagued by insects, diseases and wildfires. Look out west and marvel at land "management" by environmental groups well-funded by an uneducated public, staffed by well-paid attorneys who can tie up reasonable forest management in the courts for years. We are all paying because the management of our natural resources has been taken away from professional resource managers by those whose ultimate goal is to prevent the cutting of a single tree, on federal lands now, and on private lands eventually. What a shame.

Aug 25, 2014

Tom and Kurt--both of you make some very good points when taking care of our forests. This is slightly a different topic, but I feel somewhat related. I know there is people who care like both of you seem to, but unfortunately, so many people these days don't seem to care when it comes to caring for our natural resources. It is called responsibility. I have seen a lot of citizens litter and don't pick up after themselves when it comes to our state and national parks (national forests included), not to mention our private lands. You can't expect park and forest employees to do all of this work when their budgets and personnel are stretched thin. A lot of parks have friends groups and there are some environmental groups who do help--such as beach cleanup days that they advertise, etc. There are those environmental groups that you mentioned who have gotten in the way, but I feel there are good ones as well. When visiting a state and national park, I have seen first hand people leaving bottles and some other trash even when there is a trash can a few feet away. Either put the trash in the trash can or haul the trash out in a bag when you leave the park. It is not that hard to do. Another annoying thing is the number of people who throw cigarette butts on the ground in our parks, forest, beaches, and other places like they don't have a care in the world which obviously they must not care about their health either. A cigarette butt may not be that big but it is still litter and it is ugly when you see them all over the place. I believe it is actually one of our most common pieces of trash.