Monday, August 17, 2015

As Fires Burn Up the Forest Service Budget, the Conservancy Calls for a Better Way to Fund Fire Suppression

by Will Whelan, director of government relations

As I write this post, Soda Fire in southwest Idaho is by far the largest wildfire in the nation, and Idahoans from Owyhee County to the Clearwater Valley are being advised to evacuate homes in the path of advancing flames.  More than 60 large fires are active across the country, with nearly 20,000 firefighters on the lines.  The entire national system for fire suppression is stretched. The toll on people, communities, and sagebrush habitats that we’ve worked so hard to protect has been heartbreaking.

Soda Fire Column © InciWeb

The headlines grab our attention, but the impact of longer and more severe fire seasons extends far beyond the fire lines.   A Forest Service report issued this month delivered a stark message: the skyrocketing cost of firefighting threatens the agency’s ability to manage for recreation, wildlife, restoration, jobs, and all of the other benefits that Americans derive from our public lands.

Twenty years ago, the Forest Service spent 16% of its budget on fire suppression.  Today, that figure has increased to more than half.  In ten years, two-thirds of the agency’s funds will go to fighting fires.  Because the agency’s overall budget allocation has been basically flat for years, essential land conservation and stewardship programs have absorbed the blow as more and more money goes to suppression.  I was stunned to discover that the Forest Service’s non-fire staff has fallen by 39% since 1998.

This is not a sustainable model for our public lands.  Tens of millions of acres of national forest lands need restoration through actions such as stream rehabilitation, forest thinning, and prescribed fire. Three-quarters of forest trails don’t meet agency standards.  The Forest Service’s road and facility maintenance backlog runs into the billions of dollars.  None of these needs can be met if current trends are allowed to continue.

This week, I joined Senator Crapo (R-ID), Senator Risch (R-ID), and Senator Wyden (D-OR) at a press conference to promote the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.  This bi-partisan bill would change how the federal government budgets for wildfire disasters by making it similar to the way other disasters are funded.  The public land agencies would continue to pay for fighting most fires.  But, the costs associated with the disaster fires would be funded with disaster funds.  The bill would have no impact on the overall federal budget or the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But it would finally give some breathing room for programs that support restoration, conservation, recreation, and the other public land values we prize.

Smokey Sign © S. Hellstrom

A united Idaho congressional delegation is leading the fight for the bill. Congressman Mike Simpson is the lead co-sponsor in the House, and Senator Mike Crapo is the lead co-sponsor in the Senate. They are all working hard for this cause and have earned our thanks.

Editor’s note: A total of 283,686 acres have burned to date since the Soda Fire ignited on August 10. As of August 17, the fire is 70% contained. Resources deployed include 811 personnel, 6 helicopters, 36 engines, 14 crews, 13 water tenders, and 9 dozers. 

To keep track of this and other fires around Idaho visit:

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