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Monday, June 16, 2014

President proposes new approach to addressing wildfire suppression costs

by Traci Eatherton, WLJ Managing Editor

Excessive wildfire suppression costs forced the U.S. Forest Service to postpone or even cancel major projects because of lack of funding, according to a USDA report released last week.

The state-by-state list shows how limited federal firefighting budgets have impacted states over the last two fiscal years (FYs 2012 and 2013). The report provides examples of how funding for local wildfire preparedness, forest restoration, and other activities in nearly every state across the country has been used to instead fight fires when wildfire suppression budgets did not fully cover firefighting costs.

The president’s FY15 budget proposed a new approach to addressing wildfire suppression costs, modeled after bipartisan legislation introduced in both houses of Congress. The new proposal would set aside an emergency fund, similar to emergency funds already available for other natural disasters, to cover costs for the most catastrophic of wildfires, avoiding the pattern in recent years of raiding other critical programs.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration proposed a change in wildfire planning, allowing for costs incurred fighting the largest fires to be paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.

The plan mirrors legislative proposals in Congress to restructure wildfire suppression funds, including a Senate bill by Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden (D- OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID).

Oregon Reps. Greg Walden (R) and Kurt Schrader (D) have also introduced similar legislation in the House.

Under the current wildfire suppression plan, state agencies project their annual fire costs by taking the average of the previous 10 years.

Between 2004 and 2013, both the Department of Interior’s and the Forest Service’s wildfire costs exceeded the 10-year average seven times. When those funds run out, agencies are forced to use funds allocated for other purposes and work on other projects like hazardous fuels reduction can be put on the backburner.

In April, the BLM and Forest Service warned that their fire suppression costs could run as much as $1 billion over budget, although the projected overrun will likely be closer to $470 million.

On June 9, President Obama spoke via teleconference with participants at the meeting of the Western Governors Association in Colorado Springs. According to the White House, they discussed the outlook for the current fire season, including existing drought conditions.

According to USDA’s press release, the president’s new plan provides certainty in addressing growing fire suppression needs while better safeguarding preparedness, maintenance and forest health programs from fund transfers that have diminished their effectiveness.

“With longer and more severe wildfire seasons, the current way that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior budget for wildland fire is unsustainable,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Until firefighting is treated like other natural disasters that can draw on emergency funding, firefighting expenditures will continue to disrupt forest restoration and management, research, and other activities that help manage our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire.”

The wildfire season is 60-80 days longer and burning twice as many acres as compared to three decades ago. In the early 1990s, the Forest Service spent less than 15 percent of its budget on fire suppression. Today the agency spends 40 percent or more for fire suppression. Over the long term, this has meant the agency has shifted resources away from forest restoration and management, research, state and private forest assistance and other activities that help maintain our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire.

The Obama administration’s 2015 budget proposal creates a special disaster relief cap adjustment for use when costs of fighting the most extreme fires exceed Forest Service and Department of the Interior budgets, as is expected to happen again this year. A May report showed that the median projected cost of fighting fires is nearly $1.8 billion this year, more than $470 million over the Forest Service’s and Interior’s firefighting budgets. In fact, these costs could reach as high as $1 billion more than the agencies currently have budgeted, according to USDA.

When actual firefighting costs exceed firefighting budgets, the Forest Service has to engage in what’s known as “fire transfer,” where funding for fire suppression is transferred from non-fire programs, including forest management activities that treat areas impacted by insects and disease and reduce the incidence and severity of future wildfires.

The list provides examples of impacts that limited funding had on forest management activities in nearly every state across the country in FY 2012 and FY2013. During those two years, the Forest Service had to transfer $440 million and $505 million, respectively, from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. Over the last 12 years, a total of $3.2 billion was shifted from other programs that accomplish important forest management objectives.

The information provides examples from each state and do not include all state impacts or region-wide or national level impacts of fire transfer. In addition, the information lists many activities that were “canceled.” These activities may have been funded in subsequent years, but the delay still has a considerable impact on Forest Service operations.

In a small number of states, Forest Service operations were not directly impacted by forest borrowing in 2012 or 2013, but there are still long-term impacts of the Forest Service’s fire budget challenge.

Over the last several decades the Forest Service has had to frequently shift resources towards firefighting and away from other programs, impacting state forestry programs and outreach to private landowners.

Examples from the report:

In Montana, for 2013, there were a number of projects that were delayed or canceled, including paths and replacement of signs. Planning efforts were also delayed or, in some cases, even canceled. A NEPA analysis for grazing was not completed on the Gallatin, Custer and Flathead National Forests. In addition, a number of grazing projects were impacted. One mile of grazing allotment fencing was not maintained; allotment management activities, including three fencing projects, were delayed; the Hay Creek fence construction project to benefit range and watershed activities was not completed.

In Nevada in 2013, Mission critical grazing work, including the ability to complete fence work on the Santa Rosa District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, was not completed. As a result, grazing was not allowed in this district.

In Utah, for 2012, a number of livestock projects took a hit. The Ashley National Forest canceled reconstruction of four livestock/elk enclosures used to study and compare the effects of livestock and elk grazing, including the effects on aspen. An agreement between the State of Utah and the Forest Service to enhance the Range Program was canceled. Hazardous fuels reduction projects on the Dixie National Forest were reduced.

Range management monitoring on the Fishlake National Forest was deferred.

Idaho, for 2012, saw a number of cancelations and delays on maintenance projects including in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, where funding was cut on road maintenance projects, limiting the ability to correct environmental concerns associated with spring runoff. In the Payette National Forest bighorn sheep monitoring was putting on the back burner.

And NEPA work in the Sawtooth National Forest’s was not completed. In the Sawtooth National Forest, noxious weed commitments and reducing their hazardous fuels and wildlife habitat treatment projects were not completed. Several land acquisition projects were also not funded, including the Upper Lochsa land acquisition in the Clearwater national Forest, the Piva Parcel land acquisition in the Sawtooth National Forest and the Salmon Selway Initiative in the Salmon-Challis and Sawtooth National Forests.

To see the full report, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/ publications/forest-servicefire-transfer-state-impacts. pdf. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor

 
 


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