Wildfire Costs Reach Dangerous Tipping Point Underscoring Need for Better Conservation Funding

Aug 5, 2015

2013 Rim Fire, California

Mike McMillan, USFS
Forest Service Report Says Half of its Budget Goes to Fire Fighting.

A new report from the U.S. Forest Service estimates that within a decade, two out of every three Forest Service dollars will go to fighting wildfires.  This year, for the first time ever, wildfires will consume more than half (52 percent) of the agency’s annual budget, a serious tipping point, according to the report.

“This report clearly shows we need a new approach to wildfires, which are burning through a large and ever-growing portion of the Forest Service budget,” said Cameron Witten, Government Relations Associate with The Wilderness Society.

“This hurts the programs that all Americans need the Forest Service to provide – programs that protect healthy watersheds, clean drinking water, outstanding outdoor recreation, hunting and angling opportunities. These essential services are being edged out by the dramatic increases in wildfire suppression costs. The Forest Service needs a more sustainable funding structure right now, to strengthen their capacity to manage all the multiple uses that we value in our National Forests,” Witten said.

The Forest Service report compiled a number of alarming figures:

  • In 1995, fire accounted for 16 percent of the appropriated budget, now it is 52 percent. That also translates into a 39 percent reduction in non-fire personnel at the Forest Service.
  • Unless changes are made, the budget portion devoted to fire could exceed 67 percent by 2025.
  • Owing to climate change, fire seasons now average 78 days longer than they were in 1970.
  • Twice as many acres burn now compared to three decades ago and the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.
  • Increasing development in fire-prone areas adds stress to the Forest Service efforts to combat fire.
  • While able to suppress or manage 98 percent of fires, the 1 or 2 percent that are “catastrophic mega fires” burn through 30 percent or more of annual wildfire costs.
  • This rising cost of fires reduces Forest Service staffing in vital non-fire program areas, which hurts the agency’s ability to conduct forest restoration and management, recreation, research, watershed protection, land conservation and other required activities.

The Wilderness Society strongly supports bipartisan legislation to fix “fire borrowing,” a destructive cycle in which the Forest Service is forced to take funds from other forest programs when its allotted wildfire funds are used up – essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul to put out fires. 

One path toward sustainable funding is S. 235 and H.R.167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015. This bill provides a bipartisan, budget-neutral mechanism for Congress to plan responsible funding for managing wildfire disasters, in the same way Congress budgets for all other natural disasters. The bills would fund a portion of the Forest Service and Interior Department wildfire suppression costs through a budget cap adjustment, similar to the cap adjustment currently in use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. This would not change federal fire management policies or strategies and will not change the cost of fire suppression.

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The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands. www.wilderness.org.  The Wilderness Society is a member of the Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus.  

Contacts:

Michael Reinemer, Communications Manager, 202- 429-3949, Michael_reinemer@tws.org

Cameron Witten, Government Relations Associate, 202-429-8458, cam_witten@tws.org