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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Firefighting Consumes Over Half Of Forest Service Budget

A firefighter stands in front of flames from a wildfire. Stock photo.
The Forest Service is now spending over half of its budget on fighting fires.

The Forest Service says there has to be a change in how wildfire fighting is paid for. Here's why: The agency's total annual budget amounts to a bit over $5 billion. Now, for the first time in its history, just over half its budget is earmarked exclusively to fight fire.

USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Robert Bonnie, says it's only going to get more expensive.

"We've doubled the amount of acres burned from about 3 and a half million [acres] to about 7 [million acres] over the last 30 years. We've got a fire season that's 78 days longer than it used to be three decades ago. As we look to the future, Forest Service scientists predict we'll probably more than double the acreage we burn annually again by mid century," Bonnie says.

According to a new Forest Service report, at least 10 states have had their largest fires on record since 2000. The report also says housing development near forest boundaries is increasing. As it stands now, over 46 million homes and over 70,000 communities are vulnerable to wildfire.

Scott Brennan is director of the Montana chapter of the Wilderness Society.

"It's a Red Flag Warning, if you will, for everybody who loves our national forests," says Brennan. "Whether you like to hunt, fish, hike or camp, or engage in any kind of recreation on our National Forests. It's the first time we've seen more than half of the agency's overall budget going to firefighting."

When federal fire suppression funds run dry during bad fire years the Forest Service must transfer funds to continue fighting those fires.

"That's a very common occurrence," Bonnie says. "We generally overshoot the amount of money we budget for fighting fire and have to take money from other programs like recreation, research as well as forest management in order to cover firefighting."

The Wilderness Society's Scott Brennan calls the so-called "fire borrowing" budget approach "disruptive" and a "perfect storm" for problems.

"Like most Montanans, my colleagues and I are really interested in the Forest Service being able to do all of its jobs, from taking care of wilderness to managing important fish and wildlife habitat to providing recreational opportunities to get more people into the woods, youth especially. This is a huge, huge, problem for everybody who loves our public lands in Montana and nationally."

Proposals are moving through Congress that would change how the federal government budgets for wildfire suppression by treating catastrophic fires like any other natural disaster.

One of them is the Senate's Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. It would take funds from emergency accounts. Proponents say that would free up more money on the front end to enable the Forest Service to remove more hazardous fuels.

The idea has plenty of bipartisan support. Gordy Sanders is Pyramid Mountain Lumber's resource manager in Seeley Lake.

Sanders says a new funding approach would benefit the government, the health of federal forests and the timber industry.

"Oh yes. If you do the right thing on the ground for the right reasons, we're convinced there will be available saw logs for all the different mills in the state to potentially acquire. We have realized that time and time again as projects do go forward," says Sanders.

The growing emphasis on fire suppression is having another impact on the Forest Service. From 1998 to 2015 it's non-fire personnel has decreased by 39 percent while fire staff has more than doubled.

USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie says this trend is happening at a time when local communities are increasingly focused on collaborative wildlife and forest health projects.

"The challenge is that the Forest Service and the communities it works with need to have the resources to be able to plan these projects, to do the public outreach around them to make sure they employ the best science. But because we're shifting so many resources to fire right now, making those projects happen is getting more difficult for the agency."

Montana's entire congressional delegation supports treating catastrophic wildfire like any other natural disaster.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.
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