Commentary: Devastating fires destroy timber and federal budgets


Issue Date: September 9, 2015
By Erin Huston
Erin Huston
More than 8.5 million acres have burned so far this year across the nation. In California, there have been more than 7,000 wildfires that have destroyed nearly 586,000 acres.
Photo/Kate Campbell

Healthy forests provide all Californians with an abundant source of clean water, clean air and unsurpassed recreational opportunities. California's forests store and filter 60 percent of the state's water supply. They provide jobs for tens of thousands of forest products workers and they generate $85.4 billion in recreation and economic activity. When our forests are unhealthy, all that depends on them is threatened.

The 2015 fire season is a living illustration of the immense impact catastrophic wildfire can have on the forests that California's economy depends on. Lost timber resources and wildlife habitat, increased soil erosion, lost jobs, damage to private property and degradation of watersheds are only some of the examples of negative impacts from fire. Nationally, it is estimated that more than 8.5 million acres have burned in 2015. The National Interagency Fire Center estimates 7,120 fires and almost 586,000 acres had burned in California as of Sept. 8.

On Aug. 5, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that the U.S. Forest Service would spend more than 50 percent of its budget for the first time to suppress the nation's wildfires. With the trend of increasing wildfire suppression costs expected to continue, it is predicted that two-thirds of the agency's budget will go toward fire suppression work by 2025. Catastrophic fire is simultaneously projected to burn twice as many acres by 2050. Obviously, these forecasts are not favorable for our federal budget or our forests.

When fire suppression funding runs out, both the USFS and the Department of Interior have the authority to transfer funds from within their budgets to make up for shortfalls. Because not enough money has been allocated in the federal budget to fight wildfires, money for forest management activities ends up being transferred to instead fund wildfire suppression activities. Suppression funding levels are generally based on the 10-year average of suppression costs and currently that's not enough.

On Aug. 25, USFS Chief Tom Tidwell sent a letter to field offices directing them to once again prepare for fire suppression transfers. Based on recent forecasts, $450 million will be transferred—split into two phases. If fire suppression continues at the current rate of $120 million to $150 million per week, these transfers may not even be enough to meet end-of-the-year suppression needs.

This current funding system leaves other forest management activities, including activities that reduce the risk of fire, shortchanged. For this reason, Farm Bureau has been urging Congress to pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would fundamentally change the approach to funding wildfire suppression. WDFA would develop a wildfire emergency funding process for a portion of USFS and DOI suppression activities similar to funds for other natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. It would also treat catastrophic wildfires as the "predictable emergencies" and provide a more reliable funding structure that does not harm land management and wildfire risk-reduction activities. In the rare case it should become necessary, USFS and DOI would retain their financial transfer authorities.

Allocating more money to fire suppression is not the only remedy needed to address our nation's catastrophic wildfire problem. Congress must also address the relationship between fire risk and forest management. There are many contributing factors behind the cause, size and intensity of wildfire, which may include excessive fuel load, overcrowding, drought, insects and disease, and even invasive species. We must identify and mitigate those factors that are controllable.

Treating and properly managing our forests is the best strategy to reduce fire risk. Yet, according to the Forest Service, between 62 million and 82 million acres are in need of treatment at risk of catastrophic wildfire. That's over 40 percent of the total USFS system. The constant threat of litigation often prevents the federal government from actively managing our forests and watersheds. Over time, this litigation threat has come at a cost as we see valuable forest resources, rural communities and recreational opportunities destroyed or significantly impacted.

There are several federal legislative proposals that seek to creatively expedite and improve forest management activities. Farm Bureau is supportive of federal land management agencies working to increase the pace and scale of forest thinning and other activities that contribute to fire prevention, water availability and forest restoration and remains actively engaged in these discussions.

Destructive megafires do not discriminate what or where they burn. The impacts on our water, energy and environment are felt throughout the state. It is time to take a serious look at current forest management and fire suppression policies to increase efforts to reduce forest fuels, expand programs to improve forest health and responsibly fund fire suppression.

(Erin Huston is a federal policy consultant for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at ehuston@cfbf.com)

Revised 9/9/15 with updated figures.

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