Today, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell reviewed the 2015 fire season and provided insight into longer term trends and challenges for the agency during testimony before the House Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee. Tidwell highlighted concerns over the increasing cost of suppressing wildfire, emphasizing that more than half of the agency’s annual budget now goes toward fire suppression.
Tidwell outlined two key issues the Forest Service is wrestling with that must be resolved by Congress.
First, the chronic increase in the portion of the Forest Service budget devoted to fire suppression must be stopped. The current rate of increase results in progressively less funding for fire prevention and restoration activities. In 1995, fire suppression made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget—this year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the budget will be dedicated to fire.
This trend is having a debilitating impact on the Forest Service budget, as well as non-suppression activities within the agency. According to the Forest Service Report Rising Firefighting Costs Raises Alarms three quarters of Forest Service trails cannot be maintained to standard. That not only impacts families wanting to use those trails, it also puts at risk small businesses and communities that depend on recreation jobs and dollars.
“Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent,” said Tidwell. “We are at a critical moment in the history of the Forest Service. Urgent action is needed in order to ensure that the Forest Service does not become further hindered by the continually increasing percentage of our budget that is dedicated to wildfire suppression activities.”
Second, we must stop the practice of “fire transfer” which occurs when fighting fires in a given year costs more than Congress appropriates for that specific function, and the Forest Service must deplete restoration, watershed and recreation programs to pay for fire suppression. This fiscal year the transfer was a record $700 million.
It is this double-hit—permanent shifting and fire transfer—that severely impacts the Forest Service’s ability to restore forests and serve the public. Experience shows that acting now to reduce the threat of future wildland fires drastically reduces costs in the long run.
The agency’s fire management goal, especially near homes and communities, is to prepare forests and grasslands to resist stresses like drought and to be more resilient following disturbances, including wildfires. Large-scale restoration projects are designed to restore fire-adapted forests while helping, in the long run, to lower the growth of both wildfire suppression cost and the share of the Forest Service budget that goes to fight wildfires. To accomplish this, the Forest Service is accelerating restoration and management of the national forests through innovative, science-based approaches, increased collaboration and using new authority provided by the 2014 Farm Bill to increase the pace and scale of restoration.
“Despite the severe loss of resources and staffing for restoration work, we are still getting good work done,” said Tidwell. “We accomplished more than 4.6 million acres of restoration that improves the health of our forests and watersheds in 2014, an increase of nine percent compared to 2011. We are eager and poised to do even more, if we can solve the two-part suppression budget crisis.”
The cost of fighting wildfires this season reached a record high, exceeding $1.7 billion. During the 2015 fire season, the Forest Service spent 24 days with all available ground and air assets committed to priority work managing more than 50,000 wildfires across the nation.
The frequency and intensity of wildfire, prolonged drought, increased development in areas near forests, and the way that fire suppression is paid for all combine to limit the agency’s capacity to realize additional gains in land management and restoration. More than nine million acres have already burned across the United States this season, destroying 2,500 single family homes and disrupting many businesses.
“The greatest losses this year involved the fatalities of 13 wildland firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the lives of others,” said Tidwell.
The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the U.S. Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation's clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency also has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.