USA — Catastrophic wild fires in the West have scorched homes, ruined livelihoods and taken a giant bite out of the governments ability to effectively manage the timber harvest in northern Wisconsin and other states.
The 7.2 million acres that burned in seven Western states and killed 23 firefighters in 2002 put in motion a decade-long budget transfer cycle that hasnt been kind to the logging interests in Wisconsin. As an unintended consequence, federal money is diverted from recreation and management activities to strictly fire suppression.
The U.S. Forest Service spent $1 billion on fire suppression that year.
The federal government has diverted more than $2.7 billion during the past 10 years from timber restoration and road maintenance to squelch fires that demand expensive hand crews, smokejumpers, airtankers and hundreds of firefighters, according to a review by Gannett Wisconsin Medias Investigative Team.
Being a fireman is not proactive management, and thats all the Forest Service is now a glorified firefighting unit, said Jim Schuessler, executive director of the Forest County Economic Development Partnership.
He said the ongoingcycle of sending billions of dollars to California, Colorado and other federal lands is costing thousands of jobs in northern Wisconsin and its 1.5 million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Without effectivetimber management, loggers miss out on the opportunity to cut high-quality hardwood on federal lands and sell it to flooring and furniture buyers.
The money diverted from timber management ripples through the northern Wisconsin economy. Dennis Schoeneck, owner of Enterprise Forest Products, a logging crew based in Oneida Countys Pelican Lake, said the national forest is shaped by the loggers who create roads and trails.
Many people from all over come here to snowmobile and use the trails for hiking and biking, Schoeneck said. None of that gets cleaned up without the timber industry. We are the groundskeepers for the recreational property.
The disease factor
Jay Glime, owner of G&G Lumber Inc. in Florence, said hardwood stand is valuable but susceptible if not protected.
Without the federal money necessary to set up more frequent harvests, the wood waits for encroaching diseases such as oak wilt and bugs like the emerald ash borer that could devastate the landscapes.
We need to quit playing around and start managing better, Glime said. If disease would attack our maple, Id be petrified. Hard maple is very profitable, and without management theyre putting us at risk.
Federal forest officials who oversee 193 million acres nationally roughly the size of Texas are fully aware of the firefighter stereotype. Heavy fuel loads, intensive fire suppression and urban sprawl have led to an era of super fires over ranges of Ponderosa pine.
Decades ago, about 20 percent of the entire forestry budget was devoted to fire. Now that portion is more than 50 percent, said Jane Cliff, spokeswoman for the 17 national forests stretching from Maine to Minnesota.
We are the U.S. Forest Service, not the U.S. Fire Service, Cliff said. Our mission is the sustained management of forest and grassland ecosystems. But if you look at our budget, were moving away from management and more toward fires.
Fire season doesnt do the budget any favors, either.
The fiscal year for the federal government begins Oct. 1, and fires peak in the West in July and August meaning most federal fire money already has been depleted by other needs in the East in fall and spring. That leads to the need for transfers, and other management grinds to a halt in Eastern forests, including the Chequamegon-Nicolet.
Maintenance efforts at the national forests have been front-loaded to the beginning of the year with the assumption money will run dry by mid-summer, Cliff said.
Were not to the point of laying people off, but travel is curtailed and campgrounds arent mowed as often and trash gets collected less often toward the end of the fiscal year, she said. Inventory and wildlife monitoring is the type of thing that gets put on hold until the next funding cycle.
Paul Strong, forest supervisor of the Chequamegon-Nicolet, said the transfers have had consequences.
Our agency has had to shift a good deal of money to the Western forests where the resource problems are greatest, Strong said. Here in Wisconsin we still meet our base-level work, but with greater capacity we could do more.
The pain is spread equally across the system, and assuming Western fires are harming Eastern forests oversimplifies a complex issue, said Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the Forest Services Fire and Aviation unit in Washington, D.C.
Funds for fire transfers come from units across the U.S. Forest Service, including the Washington Office, all regions and research stations, Jones said.
More money seems unlikely in an already stretched federal budget, but some solutions have been floated. One would allow state and county workers to share resources on federal lands, said U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, a Republican from Sherwood.
So far weve seen a reluctance from the Forest Service in that avenue and there are some laws that prohibit it, but we need to get creative, Ribble said. Lets face it, everyone in the same neighborhood wants the land managed correctly.
Money for recreation and timber management are being stolen by the fire cycle, said Frank Carroll, a retired forester who managed the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, a region savaged by the mountain pine beetle and the risk of fire.
In the past, he said, the Forest Service would fight fires, then send Congress the bill. Now, the process is reversed and unsustainable.
It has forced (national) forests to spend as much money as they can right up front, knowing by June or July youll lose it to fire suppression, Carroll said. Its already had a terrible impact, and its coming to a head because the Forest Service can barely operate toward the end of the fiscal year.