Greatest Hits 3 – Make it the Forest Service Again, Not the Fire Service

So the last few blogs have been about timber theft. Well, there are two more threats to the country’s forests that we have to consider as well—fire and lack of management. These two issues go hand in hand, in the issue of Federal Forestry Reform.

No one disputes the fact that Western forest fires are out of control, both in terms of the number and the cost of fighting them. Wildfire suppression costs currently consume over 50 percent of the Forest Service’s budget. (Twenty years ago, firefighting represented about 16 percent of the agency’s budget.)

This money isn’t preventing fires—it’s just trying to minimize the damage when they happen. And the damage is huge: as of the end of September nearly 9 million acres have gone up in smoke—that’s an area larger than Maryland. 2015 may well become the worse year on record for loss of forest land. (It’s already at No. 4.)

The Forest Service has a fixed budget, and fighting fires takes dollars away from proactive forest management projects, including timber harvest sales, disease prevention, critical wildlife habitat maintenance, and recreational programs; all activities which promote the health and resilience of our federal forests as well as support the economic viability of surrounding communities. This year, the Forest Service expects it will need to “borrow” at least $200 million from non-fire accounts to pay for fire suppression. As Senator Wyden said during our meeting, the agency is now more of a Fire Service than a Forest Service. And that’s not right.

If we were able to manage our forests better, we might actually reduce the occurrence of fires themselves. Wouldn’t it be better to pay for fire prevention accounts than fire suppression?

The U.S. government owns nearly 640 million acres—federal lands represent nearly 85 percent of Nevada; 70 percent of Alaska and roughly half of Arizona, California, and Utah. The agency estimates that 60-80 million acres of forestland are vulnerable and in need of treatment.

Better forest management means healthier forests. It means the loss of less forest, not just to fire, but also to disease and insects. That’s not just good for the timber industry; it’s good for the tourist industry. For the wildlife that lives there. For the homeowners who live nearby.

Congress is debating how to approach this. Many favor just redesigning the budget for firefighting—get Federal Emergency Management Agency involved perhaps. But we have a chance to do something more proactive—we shouldn’t just be throwing money at fighting the fires, we should be working on ways to prevent them. Any final legislation must address not just forest fire budget concerns but also provide the U.S. Forest Service with more flexible tools to address management needs. They need to be able to streamline planning, reduce frivolous lawsuits, and speed up the pace and nature of forest management. Without immediate action, we’ll watch our future go up in smoke.

Reposted on June 12.