Congress keeps wavering whether it wants to open wide the wallet and hand a stable cash stream for wildfire prevention and control…which is one more reason to sweat for managers trying to cool the flames on the ground and in the research labs. This is an article I wrote on the perils of fire management funding that appeared in Forest Magazine in Winter 2009.
Burning Up the Budget
Forest Magazine, Winter 2009
Geoff Donovan, a U.S. Forest Service research economist, didn’t hesitate to launch new projects early this past year. Donovan studies the costs of fire suppression and management at the agency’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, Oregon, and he knew there was a good reason to jump into his research sooner than later. One of his colleagues had determined that the agency faced a more than 90 percent chance of needing to raid research and program funds to pay for firefighting costs toward the end of the year.
Planning for probable budget cuts because of the increasing cost of fighting wildfires is a wise move for Forest Service personnel. In 1998, 10 percent of the agency’s budget was dedicated to firefighting, but by 2008, that number had grown to 45 percent of total funds. When the government used up the $1.2 billion it had allocated for fire suppression by August, Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell announced plans to take $400 million from other agency programs.
Fire transfer orders, which dip into budgets at research stations and on national forests to shore up the firefighting deficit, have become an annual part of wildfire season. The agency has made transfers six out of the past eight years, and as a result, many projects have been subject to delays and cancellations. Staff members are learning to plan—or not plan, in some cases—accordingly.
“It’s politically intolerable to hold people to that [firefighting] budget,” Donovan says, “because then you’re going to let things burn.”
Congress uses a ten-year average of past fire costs to determine the Forest Service’s fire suppression budget each year. The agency used to cover excess suppression costs with money from timber sales, but that account has dried up as cutting has declined, says Forest Service Budget Director Lenise Lago. At the same time, in the last decade fire expenses have spiraled upward because of fuel buildup from Smokey Bear–inspired fire suppression, rampant development in the urban-wildland fringe and the impacts of climate change.
It’s a vicious cycle for forest management. Cuts and program stoppages trickle down to affect plans for land acquisition, recreation, structural maintenance and education. More critically, from a forest-health perspective, the budget transfers mean projects that proactively lower fire risk, such as fuels reduction, restoration of wildlife habitat and rehabilitation of burnt-over landscapes, are postponed or shelved. The money shift creates a negative feedback loop that leads to greater threats, more severe suppression needs and higher costs when major burns ignite.
“We had to go through all the accounts available and shake money out of all of them,” Lago says, referring to the agency’s 2008 transfer.
In Colorado, a $63,000 fuel reduction project on 194 acres of the Uncompahgre National Forest was one of many projects put on hold after Kimbell’s August 2008 announcement. An $82,000 plan to decommission 285 miles of roads in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming was postponed because of fire transfer. The Deschutes National Forest in Oregon estimated lost funds for hazardous fuel reduction at $555,000.
“It’s pretty regular now that you see hiccups in the fuel reduction work,” says Tom Fry, who coordinates the wildland fire program for the Wilderness Society.
Congress has frequently restored at least some of the transfer money, including in 2008, through either a continuing resolution or supplemental appropriation. But the Forest Service’s Lago estimates a roughly $417-million gap between transfers and repayments since 2001. Even this year, when the return of funds helped avert outright cancellation of projects, it didn’t entirely negate the consequences of fire transfers
or provide a long-term solution.
The Pacific Northwest Research Station surrendered $4.4 million following Kimbell’s August announcement. Deputy Director Cynthia West says the shift forced the office to halt work on a number of projects, including remote-sensing mapping for its Forest Inventory and Analysis program, assessments of fire-smoke emissions and evaluations of climate-change impacts. In some cases collaborative programs with partners at other government agencies and universities must be relaunched after spending years aligning money and staff.
“Sometimes, you have an opportunity that can never be recreated again,” says West, referring to research and management projects lost to fire transfer orders. “If you have to walk away from a three-year project in year two, it’s really not a good deal for the taxpayers either. Once you stop doing work, you can’t just get your field groups back out. There’s a huge loss in productivity.”
Forestry organizations, environmental groups and Forest Service officials, including a handful of former chiefs, have called for a lasting fix. This past year, lawmakers introduced the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, called FLAME, to create a separate fund solely for suppression of catastrophic wildfires. The bill made it through the House, but not before being amended so the fund would still be part of the agency budget and set to the ten-year-average fire cost, which underestimates rising expenses.
The FLAME Act, as originally drafted, could remedy the fire transfer problem, says Caitlyn Peel, the governmental affairs director for the Council of Western State Foresters. But Peel and others fret that the legislation could lead Congress to fund an emergency fire account by reducing the overall Forest Service budget, meaning fire suppression funds would still come at the expense of research, treatment and other programs.
“For fire [funding] to go up, something else has to go down,” Lago says.