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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Sep 25 2015

Up in Smoke

Firefighting is consuming Forest Service budget, but Sen. Daines is putting up smokescreens instead of focusing on solutions


Across the West, communities are recovering from one of the longest fire seasons in recent history. Thanks to the heroic work of wildland firefighters who risked their own safety to protect the lives and property of others, the season wasn’t as devastating as it could have been. Now, as the rain and snow fall and the long fire season comes to an end, it’s essential that Congress change how we pay for wildland firefighting, because the status quo is gutting the U.S. Forest Service.

Unfortunately, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act – a common-sense legislative solution to this funding problem, which had the support of Montana’s entire congressional delegation – got mired in politics last week when Senator Steve Daines chose to support the Resilient Federal Forest Act (HR 2647) as his preferred fix for funding wildfire supression. HR 2647 is a top-down forest policy bill that’s dressed up as a panacea to our wildfire problem. But the bill is more of a smokescreen than any kind of solution.

With support in both houses of Congress and the White House, the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has a real chance of becoming law – but only if Congress keeps its eyes on the prize and stops playing political games with wildfire funding. Unfortunately, Sen. Daines has chosen politics over progress for the time being.

Today, the U.S. Forest Service depends on Congress to allocate resources for wildland firefighting as part of its annual budget in the same way it depends on Congress for all other budgetary needs. The trouble is that it’s a lot more difficult to predict wildfire costs than it is to predict the costs of routine campground maintenance. In a hot, dry summer like the one we just had, firefighting costs quickly overrun budget allocations and the Forest Service is forced to “borrow” money from other programs.

This borrowing practice is hemorrhaging the Forest Service’s budget and leaving the agency with far less than it needs to pay for other public land management priorities, such as outdoor recreation and forest restoration.

A recent report shows that, for the first time in the agency’s history, the Forest Service is spending a majority of its Congressional funding on wildfire suppression, nearing 52% of the agency’s budget in FY 2015. By comparison, 16% of the budget was consumed by fire suppression twenty years ago.

This summer was particularly challenging for the agency. In late August, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced the agency would have to transfer up to $450 million away from existing programs and into the wildfire suppression account.

“Once again we have to shut down major parts of our mission to fulfill our wildfire suppression responsibilities within the funds available to the agency,” Tidwell said.

There’s the rub. These “major parts” of the mission include vital programs that many Montanans would consider essential to our outdoor way of life and our state’s economy, which increasingly depends on outdoor recreation. As a result of diverting funds to fight fires, the following is just a sampling of the important work that lost substantial funding in FY 2015:

  • Acquiring strategic lands that protect and enhance public access and wildlife habitat through the Land and Water Conservation Fund
  • Treating thousands of acres of noxious weeds in Montana
  • Completing forest management and restoration projects that reduce fuel loads, improve water quality, and create much needed jobs
  • Maintaining campgrounds, picnic areas, and trailheads that provide the public access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds
  • Improving USFS roads to protect fish and wildlife and increase recreational access.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act changes the way the federal government budgets for fighting wildfires, making it similar to how we fund our response to other natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes. Under this bill, the agency would not be required to divert money away from non-firefighting programs to do the job of protecting our lives and property. This important change would allow the agency to fight fires and restore watersheds, maintain roads and trails, protect critical wildlife habitat, and other jobs it needs to be doing.

Conversely, the Resilient Federal Forest Act has more to do with appeasing special interests than addressing wildfire suppression. Introduced by Rep. Zinke and Arkansas Congressman Bruce Westerman in the House, the Resilient Federal Forest Act (H.R. 2647) would allow the Forest Service to receive disaster funds for fighting wildfires only after the agency has used up to 100% of the ten-year average for fire fighting costs included in its budget – a half measure at best in addressing the agency’s funding crisis. Above all else, H.R. 2647 prioritizes timber harvest, leaving conservation and restoration out of the picture and upending local collaborative efforts that work toward striking a balance between preservation and restoration of our forests. (Read more about this bill.) 

Our climate is changing. Longer, more intense fire seasons are a near certainty. With this future in mind, we’re counting on Congress to act now and empower wildland firefighters to do their job—without preventing the rest of the USFS from doing its job.

Please contact Sen. Tester at (202) 224-2644 and thank him for his continued support of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. Also call Sen. Daines at (202) 224-2651 and request that he ignore an unbalanced bill written in Arkansas and focus his attention on the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. 

- John Todd, MWA conservation director