The cost of fighting forest fires has rapidly increased over the last 20 years, putting a strain on and shrinking budgets for other forest programs, including those that can help prevent and mitigate fire damage, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday.
The Forest Service's firefighting appropriation has rapidly risen as a proportion of the Forest Service's overall budget, increasing from 16% in 1995 to 42% today, forcing cuts in other budget areas, USDA said.
On top of the budget reductions outlined in a new report, the Forest Service's non-fire program budgets are affected by "fire borrowing," USDA said. 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.
Vilsack said the situation can be assisted by Congressional order to allow an existing disaster fund to provide resources to fight catastrophic fires in years when Forest Service and Department of Interior fire costs exceed the amount Congress has budgeted, rather than forcing borrowing from non-fire programs.
"Bipartisan proposals to fund catastrophic fire like other natural disasters could help ensure that efforts to make forests more healthy and resilient and support local tourism economies aren't impacted as significantly as they have been in recent years," Vilsack said. "These proposals don't increase the deficit, they just budget smarter by allowing existing natural disaster funding to be used in cases of catastrophic wildfire."
Several programs have taken a hit from "fire borrowing," for example:
• Funding for the Vegetation and Watershed Management Program has been cut by 22% since 2001. This has reduced the Forest Service's ability to prevent and limit the spread of invasive species, which can make forests more susceptible to fire.
• Maintenance and capital improvements on approximately 21,600 recreation sites and 23,100 research and other administrative buildings has been reduced by two-thirds since 2001.
• Support for recreation, heritage and wilderness activities that connect the public with our natural lands and support tourism and jobs (visitors to national forests contributed more than $13 billion to America's economy each year) has been cut by 13%.
• Wildlife and fisheries habitat management has been reduced by 17%, limiting recovery efforts for threatened and endangered species.
• Research funding has declined by more than $36 million in the ten year period ending in 2013.
While fire staffing has increased 110% since 1998, staffing for those dedicated to managing National Forest Service lands has decreased 35% over the same period, USDA said.
Vilsack said the average number of fires on Federal lands has more than doubled since 1980 and the total area burned annually has tripled. He said that climate change, population growth near forests, brush and fuel buildup have drastically increased wildfire severity and the cost of fighting them.
Vilsack's request to change the way catastrophic fire costs are funded is included in the Obama Administration's proposed budget and is supported by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, USDA said.
Read the full report, The Rising Cost of Fire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service's Non-fire Work.