For years the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have had a problem: While federal budgets have included money for fighting wildfires, it often hasn’t been enough to get the job done. The budget shortage could be made up by taking money earmarked for forest health restoration, a practice called fire borrowing, leaving the very work that would reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fire short of money.
That’s about to change. Maybe. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 included a provision that would end fire borrowing in the federal 2020 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
That was then. Today, just weeks before the fiscal year begins, the departments of the Interior and Agriculture, which oversee the two land management agencies, have failed to include the money Congress hoped would improve forest health even in the event of catastrophic fires.
The lack hasn’t gone unnoticed. Oregon’s two senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Portland Democrats, joined six other western Democratic senators in March to write to the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture departments, urging them to include more money for forest health. They note that ending fire borrowing will allow the agencies to save $649 million in fire suppression costs in the 2020 fiscal year, yet none of that money has gone to work on correcting the problems that lead to such fires in the first place.
The two, fire suppression and forest health, are inextricably linked, and funding one half of the pair — fire suppression — without funding the other leaves the country’s public lands prone to more, bigger, and more expensive fires in the future. If the proposed federal spending is adopted, there are funds to restore only 3.4 million of the nation’s 90 million acres of forest land in need of the work in the coming year.
That’s not enough. The administration and Congress must do better.