USA – Republicans and Democrats arent supposed to agree on much these days, particularly when it comes to the environment and management of our public lands. But, we do.
Both of us served as the Department of Agriculture’s under secretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment one for President George W. Bush and one for Barack Obama. In that role, we both witnessed the dramatic increase in severe wildfires in the nations forests and grasslands. And, both of us agree, that to solve this problem, Congress must change the way we pay for wildland firefighting.
For eons, fires caused by lightning strikes or set by native Americans have shaped our forests, naturally thinning them, reducing fuels that carry fire and regenerating fire-dependent trees and plants. Following the United States Forest Services founding in 1905, the predominant view for many decades was that fire was a destructive force that must be controlled being able to control fire was a necessary predicate for sustainable forestry.
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Yet, stamping out all fires had an unintended consequence. Our forests slowly became denser, less healthy and more likely to burn catastrophically.
Today, on average 7-8 million acres of forests and grasslands burn annually, about double the figure from three decades ago. Todays wildfires are often larger, more catastrophic and deadlier. In bad fire years, thousands of homes are lost. Worse, over 450 wildland firefighters have been killed in the line of duty since 1990 and many civilians have died as well.
Decades of fire suppression arent the only culprit. While policymakers in Washington may debate climate science, theres little doubt that wildfires are being impacted by longer fire seasons, reduced snowpack in high elevation forests and increasingly severe droughts. Whats more, Americans have built millions of homes within or adjacent to forests and grasslands, making accidental, human-caused fires more likely, and putting property and people at substantially greater risk.
When fires do occur, local, state and federal firefighters work together to put them out, combining resources and personnel. Very few fires escape, but those that do are often destructive and expensive. Such fires require hundreds if not thousands of firefighters who must be housed, fed and cared for, they also require safety gear, engines, helicopters, airtankers and other equipment. Its not unusual for a single wildfire to cover over 100 square miles and cost tens of millions of dollars to fight. Last summer, a single fire that burned onto the Los Padres National Forest in California cost the state and federal government over $230 million.
The budget implications of wildland firefighting are enormous and steadily getting worse.
In 1995, the US Forest Service the largest firefighting agency in the US government spent about one-sixth of its budget on wildfire. Today, it regularly spends over half of its $5 billion annual budget on firefighting. And, even that money often isnt enough, forcing the agency to borrow from non-fire accounts in most years.
Of course, our 193 million-acre National Forest System is a national treasure, providing clean water, wildlife habitat and billions of dollars annually in economic activity from outdoor recreation, forest products, grazing, minerals and other resources. Yet, compared to two decades ago, the Forest Service has about 40% fewer employees today to help manage those resources. Where have they gone? Theyre fighting fire.
Worst of all, all the money spent on fire has kept the agency from investing in forest restoration and other activities to reduce the threat of wildfire in the first place. Its a vicious cycle.
For several years now, a bipartisan group in Congress has been working to change this, by allowing the agency to draw on emergency funds in bad fire years and simultaneously providing more dollars for fire prevention, including forest restoration. Senators Mike Crapo (ID) and Sherrod Brown (OH) have introduced legislation to do exactly that. USDA Secretary Perdue has signaled his strong interest in solving the problem.
Any solution that can pass Congress will likely also include provisions to streamline projects to thin forests and reduce the fire threat across our National Forests. Those provisions should be built on sound science, require collaboration amongst diverse stakeholders and be consistent with existing environmental laws. Both of us were strong proponents of collaborative forest management projects during our stints at USDA and believe these projects can be designed to reduce the threat of fire, provide needed timber to local mills and improve forest health. But, Congress must resolve the budget challenge. Until it does, the Forest Service will be hamstrung.
Robert Bonnie served in the Obama administration and is now a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University. Mark Rey served in the George W Bush administration and is now an executive in residence at Michigan State University.