Issues with Forest Service fire budgeting finally addressed
I chose the GAO article called Wildfire Suppression. As we have covered thus far in the course, the Forest Service began to change its policy of fire suppression in the 60’s and 70’s, in favor of more natural fire regimes. Despite this paradigm shift, the backlash from the fire suppression policy still haunts us every summer as wildfires burn large and hot, fueled by decades of accumulated debris and densely packed young trees. Experience that simply not putting out fires is a risky business. Instead, it is better to treat the stands with more carefully controlled methods, like prescribed burning and mechanical fuel reduction. Fire is a dangerous adversary and it is much better fought on one’s own terms.
Even though prevention tactics have been ramped up since the 70’s, the number of acres in need of treatment is so vast that the Forest Service is still far behind. Thus, fires have continued to grow larger, and these fires are increasingly expensive. To pay for the cost of fighting the fires the Forest Service had a dedicated trust fund which covered costs until 1999. In that year they had to borrow from other programs to cover the suppression costs, and this was repeated for the next four years. From 1999 to 2003 the agency borrowed a total of $2.7 billion from other programs, most of which were part of wilderness management. 80% of these costs were originally refunded to the agency, though that number has dropped to 75% recently. Additionally, the refunds were given a year or more later, meaning the original project from which the money was borrowed was often gone.
Measures were taken to preemptively fund the costs, however the models on which these reslied have been less than stellar. The article makes the case that these models need to be improved to be effective. This would allow the agency to put intended funding toward fuel treatments, while still having enough for suppression. The issues raised in the report, written in 2004, have been addressed since it was written.
For the first time in 9 years the Forest Service ended fire season without borrowing in 2019. This is due to a new fund set up which provides instant federal funding, eliminating the borrowing issue (Broussard). This has been a long time coming, and will hopefully mean more fuel treatments in the future.
Broussard, Kailey. “Money to Burn: Forest Service Wildfire Fund Ends Its Year in the Black.” Cronkite News – Arizona PBS, 31 Dec. 2019, cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2019/10/25/money-to-burn-forest-service-wildfire-fund-ends-its-year-in-the-black/.