USA– Wildfires that have burned more than eight million acres and are still raging in the West are draining the budgets of federal agencies and forcing them to divert money from essential environmental and land conservation programs to fight the fires. That is why Congress needs to start budgeting for forest fires in a different way, treating them more like natural disasters rather than a continuing expense. The Agriculture and Interior Departments have been making this case for some time, and its a good one.
The Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department, says that 52 percent of its budget this year is dedicated to suppressing and managing fires, a whopping increase from 16 percent only 10 year ago. But even that has not been enough, and the agency has had to move $700 million from the rest of its budget just to deal with wildfires.
Agencies in the Interior Department like the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service have struggled with similar budget issues.
This borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is an incredibly shortsighted way to manage the nations prized forests, parks and wilderness areas. Federal agencies should have sufficient resources to deal with wildfires without robbing programs designed to protect water quality, preserve and acquire open space and which, in some cases, are explicitly aimed at making forests more resilient to future fires.
The secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack; the secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell; and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shaun Donovan, sent a letter on Sept. 15 to members of Congress calling on them to treat wildfires more like other national disasters. Annually recurring fires are obviously different from, say, a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, but the idea is that the agencies would be allowed to tap emergency funds in bad fire years when costs exceed a certain percentage of their budgets.
A recent report by the Forest Service shows in glaring detail how the growing cost of fighting fires has reduced its capacity to do everything else its supposed to do. As the number of employees involved in dealing with fires has increased by 114 percent since 1998, to more than 12,000 people, the number of employees managing the services lands has fallen by 39 percent, to less than 11,000.
Meanwhile, the amount of money the Forest Service spends on watersheds, facilities and upkeep of roads, trails and other infrastructure have all dropped sharply. It is no surprise then that the service now has a deferred maintenance backlog that totals $5.1 billion.
Congress needs to respond soon, because fires are only becoming a bigger burden. The Forest Service estimates that two-thirds of its annual budget could be dedicated to fire suppression and management by 2025. Climate experts are cautious about linking any single natural disaster a major hurricane or flood, for instance to global warming, and that reluctance extends to wildfires as well. And besides, forests fires have been a regular feature of the Western landscape for years. But scientists are widely agreed that climate change is creating the conditions that are likely to make fires bigger and more intense in years to come.
Those members of Congress who reject or belittle the science of climate change should pause for a moment and try to imagine a future with even more devastating fires than the ones they see now on the evening news.