Out in the West, we are facing another potentially difficult fire season. In recent years, hot, dry summers have fueled larger and more severe wildfires, putting people, property and our natural resources at risk.
Since the 1980s, fire season lengths have increased by up to 80 days and the number of acres burned has more than doubled to over 7 million annually. All the while, more homes are being constructed near forests to meet the needs of a growing population. Increasing fuels in our forests, resulting from decades of extinguishing every fire, bark beetle outbreaks and other factors have made our forests more susceptible to catastrophic wildfire. These factors — climate change, development into forests, and increased fuels — are also having a significant impact on the federal agency, which spends the most money on wild land firefighting — the U.S. Forest Service.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service spent less than 15 percent of its budget on fire suppression — today we spend 40 percent or more. When worst comes to worst and spending on firefighting exceeds the budget — as it has in seven of the last twelve years — we have to transfer money from other programs to cover the difference. Too often, we are forced to borrow money dedicated to forest restoration and other management activities that will prevent wildfires in the long run in order to fight fires in the short term.
Many of those projects and the jobs that come with them would have been located right here in Utah. For example, in the federal funding years 2012 and 2013, travel and public information services were curtailed, along with sign installation, building maintenance and equipment purchases. Unfortunately, to get money to fight wildfires, we also reduced the number of hazardous fuel reduction projects on the Dixie National Forest that would have helped prevent catastrophic wildfire. Road maintenance, bridge repair and even the planned purchase of 100,000 seedlings were deferred, as well.
Utah is not alone. Over the last two decades, nationwide, the Forest Service has shifted more and more money to firefighting, reducing foresters and other staff by over 30 percent and more than doubling the number of firefighters.
While the Forest Service will always put protecting lives, homes and assets first, the agency shouldn’t have to borrow money from other parts of its budget to do that. In its 2015 budget proposal, the Obama Administration has proposed a better approach to fire funding, similar to bipartisan legislation already pending in Congress. The new proposal would reserve an emergency fund, similar to those set aside for other natural disasters, so that when firefighting costs exceed the annual fire suppression budget, funding would be drawn from the emergency fund rather than raiding other Forest Service projects and programs.
The President’s proposal and this bipartisan legislation have broad support amongst forest industry, environmental groups, recreation groups, foresters and many others. They recognize that the federal budget should treat forest fires more like the natural disasters that they are. These groups also understand that by better shielding the federal budget from the impacts of growing firefighting costs, the Forest Service will be able to invest in forest restoration and management projects that increase the resilience of our forests and Utah residents, to wild land fire.
Robert Bonnie is the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment. At USDA, Bonnie oversees the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service on a variety of natural resource issues, working closely with the Farm Service Agency.