The U.S. Forest Service has become the U.S. Fire Management Service. Its mission is increasingly going from managing forests to managing the fight to prevent them from burning down.
In 1995 it spent about 16 percent of its annual budget on fighting fires. This year, it’s going to be more than 50 percent, as the agency relayed this week in a new report. There’s been a corresponding reduction in nonfire staff by 39 percent.
If nothing is done, the trend will continue.
Less and less money is available for other forest programs. In agency speak, that’s called fire transfers. Money that goes to recreation, heritage and wilderness has declined by 15 percent since 2001. Money for wildlife and fisheries management has declined by 18 percent over the same period. Money for facilities has declined by 68 percent. Money for things like managing permits, title claims and encroachments has declined by 33 percent. Planning dollars are down 64 percent. Monitoring and inventory dollars are down 35 percent.
The Forest Service report concludes it needs a solution from Congress that limits or reverses “the runaway growth of firefighting costs, and it must address the compounding disruption of fire transfers.”
The solution mentioned is the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, already in Congress. Members of the Oregon delegation have long supported the concept. It would treat the biggest wildfires more like natural disasters, so paying for them would not mean raiding all the other parts of the Forest Service budget.
But Congress can’t just pass that bill and think the job is done. The Forest Service needs legislation so it can accelerate thinning and logging in the national forests.