Forests and the fire department

Bushfire trauma lasting in children

14 February 2008

published by

USA — USFS. The United States Forest … no, strike that. Call it the United States Firefighting (Mostly in Forests) Service.

This, members of Congess say, is the state to which this venerable agency is being reduced. The Bush administration budget for the Forest Service just released would cut the agency’s funding by another 8 percent, to $4.1 billion in 2009, which would follow on a stream of streamlined budgets. This sounds like a great deal of money for a specialized natural-resources agency until you consider the Forest Service manages and cares for 193 million acres of our most precious public land. Money set aside to fight fires will increase by at least $148 million, but that money will come by reducing efforts to safeguard and care for forests as yet unburned. Firefighting will consume 48 percent of the agency budget. It took as little as 13 percent as recently as 1991.

Virtually every other program will be thinned. Estimates are 10 percent of the Forest Service work force, 2,700 jobs nationwide, will have to go, perhaps through retirement and attrition. (“We are not using the word ‘layoff'” Forest Service spokesperson Allison Stewart commented.) Funds to manage and monitor the health of the forest will be cut. Funds to thin overgrown stands and remove fuels, once the highest priority, will be cut. Funds to prepare and train firefighters will be cut. Funds for recreation and trail maintenance will erode.

This is significant for the people living next to the national forest. The agency that acre for acre owns and manages most of Chelan County and a good share of Okanogan will in large part be paid to stand by and wait for it all to catch fire.

“The Forest Service might be more appropriately called the Fire Service,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. “It’s bad,” said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the chairman of the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee. The budget plan is “an unmitigated disaster,” he said.

The budget cuts money for programs to avoid fire in order to boost funding to fight the fires they will not try to prevent.

This is not sudden discovery, but the continuation of a trend approved by Congress in previous budgets. Fires are consuming national forests, and the cost of fighting fires is consuming the Forest Service. Once the revenue from timber sales was banked and expenses were covered by Congress through supplemental appropriations. Revenue from timber disappeared, and Congress determined the agency should budget for firefighting more realistically.

Last year, before the latest Bush budget dramatized the trend, five former chiefs of the Forest Service issued a plea to Congress. “As chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service from 1979 to 2007, we wish to express in the strongest way that the Forest Service has been put into an untenable financial situation due to the way fire suppression funding it being handled in the federal budget,” said a statement signed by R. Max Peterson, F. Dale Robertson, Jack Ward Thomas, Michael Dombeck and Dale Bosworth, as reported in the Missoulian.

“If you look down the line three, five, 10 years from now, firefighting costs could presumably be close to 100 percent,” Bosworth told the Missoulian. “Congress shouldn’t allow it to get that bad.”

Until then, plan seems to be, keep fighting those fires until there’s nothing left. It will be hard to watch.

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