USA — Creating a separate spending account to fight catastrophic emergency wildfires would allow the U.S. Forest Service to address this critical need and maintain funding for other vital programs in its mission, Gerry Gray, vice president of policy for American Forests told the House Committee on Natural Resources Thursday.
Speaking as a member of the Rural Voices of Conservation Coalition (RVCC), Gray said Congress must craft an effective response to the wildfire suppression funding crisis as a first step in investing in the whole of the Forest Services mission. The RVCC, a coalition of western rural and local, regional, and national organizations, promotes balanced conservation-based approaches to ecological and economic problems facing the West.
As wildfire suppression costs have escalated, other program funds have been reduced. The proportion of the Forest Services total budget devoted to wildland fire management has increased from 13 percent in 1991 to 48 percent in the Administrations Fiscal Year 2009 budget proposals. Increasing wildfire suppression costswhich have exceeded $1 billion in six of the last eight yearshave been the major reason for these increases. As a result, funding has decreased significantly for prevention, restoration, and community capacity-building activities, Gray said. Some of these now-underfunded programs build community capacity to address wildfire threats, thus reducing the chances for large, uncharacteristically severe fires. Likewise, programs that invest in efforts to restore forest health and help those who care for and maintain forests reduce fires impact and the cost of fire suppression.
Funding for these types of programs is essential to solving our current forest health crises and the associated threats to communities over the long term, Gray warned.
About 1 percent of wildfires account for 95 percent of all acres burned and consume 85 percent of total suppression funds. These one percent of fires are true emergencies and should be treated and paid for differently, through a separate account, Gray said.
In considering a separate account Gray urged Congress to:
ensure funding is designated as emergency to protect agency budget caps
maintain robust annual wildfire suppression budgets for the other 99 percent of fires
redistribute monies back into agency programs that have been severely cut by increasing suppression costs
These programs include recreation and wilderness, vegetation and watersheds, wildlife and fisheries, and roads and trails.
Any separate account should include minimum criteria for accessing its monies, incentives for not spending the funds unnecessarily, year-end accountability, and a demonstrated commitment to cost containment, Gray added.