Letters From the West

Groups urge Congress to fix firefighting funding

The Elk Creek Fire burns hot Aug. 10 outside of Pine. (Incident command photo)

The Elk Creek Fire burns hot Aug. 10 outside of Pine. (Incident command photo)

A broad coalition is urging Congress to find long term solution to funding firefighting and to provide immediate funding now to the agencies who have maxed out their firefighting budgets.

More than 90 conservation, timber, recreation, sportsmen and employer groups delivered signed letters Wednesday to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate the Forest Service announced last week it has run out of money to fight fires. As a result the agency has begun to transfer $600 million out of non-firefighting programs to cover on-going emergency firefighting expenses.

This is the second straight year and 7th time since 2002 that the Forest Service has exceeded its allocation for fire fighting and been forced to look to other programs to make up the deficit. In the same ten-year period beginning in 2002, the Agency transferred $2.8 billion from non-suppression accounts within the Forest Service.

These transfers result in less forest restoration, active forest management, forest landowner assistance, recreational services, road maintenance, and lost jobs. In addition these transfers will also lead to a long-term increase in fire risk and costs.

The FLAME — Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement — Act was passed in 2009 to create separate funds for the Forest Service, so that surplus firefighting funds in quieter fire years could be saved for big years like this one.

But Congress took $200 million from the fund in 2011, as a part of the deal to keep the government running in the debt-ceiling standoff. Congress took another $240 million in surplus funds in 2012 and made the cuts again in 2013.
On top of those cuts, the Forest Service started this year with 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer engines because of across-the-board cuts Congress approved. Add more than 2 percent of other cuts forced on the agency — which manages 193 million acres nationwide — and the overall cut is more than 7 percent.

“With suppression inadequately funded, it’s not a surprise that we’re in a transfer situation once again, but these transfers add insult to injury,” said National Association of State Foresters President and West Virginia State Forester Randy Dye. “States are still dealing with the impacts from last year’s transfers and now another round will further disrupt state forestry work and harm those important partnerships cultivated when developing forest projects.”

Changes in climate, build-up of hazardous fuels, and increasing populations next to forests and rangeland have contributed to in increased size and severity of fires.

“This emergency fire borrowing both depletes vitally needed non-fire funds but also has a chilling effect throughout land managing agencies as they are told to stop normal business and conserve operations, grants and contract funds for possible future fire emergency needs,” said Christopher Topik of The Nature Conservancy.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West