Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue used a swearing in ceremony for the new Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke to urge Congress to change the way the U.S. Forest Service is funded.
Currently, the fire suppression portion of the Forest Service budget is funded at a rolling ten-year average of appropriations, while the overall Forest Service budget has remained relatively flat. Because the fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the ten-year rolling fire suppression budget average keeps rising, chewing up a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year. The agency has had to borrow from prevention programs to cover fire suppression costs. Perdue said he would prefer that Congress treat major fires the same as other disasters and be covered by emergency funds so that prevention programs are not raided.
Perdue argues that taking funds from prevention efforts only leaves behind more fuel in the forests for future fires to burn, exacerbating the situation.
“I’ve told people the analogy – it’s like eating your seed corn,” Perdue said. “You know, when you have to spend so much fighting fires, you can’t spend the money that’s appropriated to prevent forest fires.”
The agency’s budget has moved from 15% fire suppression to more than 55%, leaving the Forest Service without enough money to do prescribed burning, harvesting and insect control.
“Fires will always be with us,” Perdue said. “But when we leave a fuel load out there because we have not been able to get to it because of a lack of funding, or dependable funding, we’re asking for trouble. We’re asking for disasters, year in and year out. And that’s what we hope to get fixed."