Ever been out on your local national forest or grassland and wondered why a trail or road was washed out, with no sign of repair? Or why a popular USDA Forest Service project was postponed?
Maybe you love to camp and fish, but the Forest Service can’t get the funds to improve access to your favorite lake or provide needed maintenance to campgrounds. Across the Northern Region, national forests and grasslands are literally in our backyards, and we all share an interest in their health and resilience for myriad reasons.
USDA is dedicated to fostering the productive and sustainable use of your national forests and grasslands. If you can’t use and enjoy your public lands, that’s a problem.
It’s also a problem if the Forest Service lacks the funds to restore an overgrown forest loaded with small trees and brush that act as fire fuels. A planned project might face endless delays — until a catastrophic fire blows through and it’s too late.
All this might be due to costly wildfires happening here in our region or hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
For decades, fires and fire seasons in the West have been growing in size, duration and damage. Ever more communities are at risk as they spread into fire-prone areas. Wildfires sometimes burn across hundreds of square miles, taking lives and destroying homes. Many are truly national disasters.
This past summer, we saw intense wildfire activity on nearly 700,000 acres on national forest lands in Montana, contributing to more than a million acres burned across all ownerships across the state.
Fire suppression costs on megafires are gargantuan. Forest Service suppression costs exceeded $2.4 billion last year, more than ever before. Fire alone accounted for 57 percent of the agency’s budget in 2017, up from just 16 percent in 1995. At the rate things are going, suppression will take up 67 percent of the Forest Service’s budget by 2021.
That means declining funds for other Forest Service programs and services. For example, many fuels and forest health projects face delays. And in the past two decades, the number of non-fire, Forest Service employees has decreased significantly. By comparison, the number of Forest Service fire personnel has doubled. These changes in our funding impacts the work we are able to do to make landscapes more resilient to drought, insects and disease, and catastrophic wildfires in the first place.
So if you’re wondering why your local Forest Service unit can’t get the funding for the projects on your community’s wish list, soaring firefighting costs could well be why.
What can be done?
The Forest Service is the only federal agency that is required to fund its entire emergency management program through its regular appropriations. About 30 percent of the Forest Service’s total spending on fire goes toward 1 to 2 percent of the fires it fights — the megafires that blast across hundreds of square miles and burn thousands of structures each year. These are national disasters, and it only makes sense to deal with them as such: through a separate national emergency fund.
A commonsense approach to national disasters would stop the drain on nonfire budgets. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and the Forest Service deeply appreciate the ongoing work of Congress to pass new legislation to reform the way wildfire suppression is funded. A commonsense approach would let us get back to the work we care about most—meeting the many different needs of the communities we serve, for the benefit of generations to come.
Leanne Marten is the regional forester, USDA Forest Service Northern Region