Over the last five years, over $14 billion has been appropriated to the National Fire Plan (NFP). During this time of large federal deficits and increasing pressure to re-examine federal budget priorities, the question must be asked whether these taxpayer dollars have promoted safer communities and more resilient ecosystems. Suppression costs have skyrocketed of late, with the Forest Service's fire suppression costs exceeding $1 billion in five of the last seven years. These escalating costs threaten to consume the Forest Service's entire discretionary budget. In fact, the Forest Service's non-fire budget has declined over 35% since FY2001. Wildland fire management activities (the largest component of which is suppression) rose from 13% of the agency's budget in fiscal year 1991 to a staggering 48% projected for fiscal year 2009 (see below). Climate predictions indicate fire season will be longer and changing demographics show more and more people moving into fire-prone wildlands. These challenges, combined with budget realities, mean a better approach to fire management is essential.
Effects of Wildland Fire Management on U.S. Forest Service Budget
Federal Fire Management Continues To Move in New Direction, But More Work is Necessary
The Fiscal Year 2009 Forest Service budget continues to emphasize important shifts in the way fire is managed that began last year, including the concept of a "risk-based fire suppression approach." This means that wildland fires would be suppressed on a priority basis as determined by considering private property, infrastructure and human values at greatest risk and setting suppression priorities accordingly (this strategy is also sometimes referred to as "Appropriate Management Response" or "AMR"). The agency also pledges to continue to expand its Wildland Fire Use program, where fires that are not threatening people and property are allowed to perform their natural role in the landscape.
The agency continues to move in the right direction by acknowledging that not all wildland fires need to be managed the same way. This is important because the past several decades of aggressively suppressing all wildland fires has thrown ecosystems out of balance, and in many places has actually increased the risk of unnaturally severe fire through the buildup of highly flammable fuels. While the Forest Service's proposed changes in fire management are promising, it's important to remember there are no "overnight" solutions.
The agency must:
- Continue the momentum that began last year to shift to an AMR approach to fires. This philosophy is beginning to take hold, with agency officials reporting that despite more fires [on Forest Service lands] than in 2006, and a 49 percent increase in Forest Service acres burned, the cost of suppressing Forest Service fires was $127 million lower in 2007 due to aggressive implementation of AMR and other cost containment measures. However, this is a difficult transition, so agencies need to continue to embrace and implement AMR with support from external stakeholders and partners.
- Ensure that adequate monitoring is in place to evaluate, and adapt if necessary, this new AMR approach.
- Expand their Wildland Fire Use program. WFU is widely accepted by scientists, policymakers and land managers as an important tool not only to help mitigate the escalating costs of fire suppression, but also to help restore forest ecosystems and make them more resilient. The Forest Service pledges to continue to pursue an expanded WFU program in their FY2009 Budget. They are also taking an important step forward by proposing a change in the way they "count" hazardous fuels treatment acres that would allow them to use WFU to help meet those treatment goals. They must also increase the number of areas available for WFU and the number of acres where WFU is used.
- Integrate non-federal stakeholders, particularly from those communities that will be impacted by these management changes on federal lands. That means that community fire assistance programs will be increasingly critical; however, the proposed funding for these programs continues to decline in FY2009.
The Table below provides an overview of proposed funding for the Wildland Fire budget for FY2009 and the two prior fiscal years, including proposed changes from FY2008 funding for each line item.
|Forest Service Wildland Fire Budget (dollars in thousands)||FY07 Final
||FY08 Enacted||FY09 Proposed||Percent Change from FY09|
|Wildland Fire Management|
|Rehabilitation and Restoration||$6,189||$10,828||$0||-100%|
|Fire Research and Development||$22,789||$23,519||$22,000||-6.5%|
|Joint Fire Sciences Program||$7,882||$7,875||$8,000||1.6%|
|Forest Health - Federal||$14,779||$14,030||$14,252||1.6%|
|Forest Health - Cooperative||$9,853||$9,858||$10,014||1.6%|
|**State Fire Assistance||$79,116||$80,572||$60,004||-25.5%|
|**Volunteer Fire Assistance||$13,685||$13,781||$13,000||-5.7%|
|Supplemental and Emergency Funding
|TOTAL without Supplemental||$1,862,410||$1,981,988||$2,006,592||1.23%|
|TOTAL with Supplemental||$2,232,410||$2,518,988|
** These accounts include funding from both Wildland Fire and State and Private Forestry.
The following briefs provide some additional information about the proposed community fire assistance budget for FY2009, as well as suggestions for funding State Fire Assistance and Suppression.
Community Fire Assistance Budget Significantly Reduced in FY2009
Programs have been designed to help states and localities promote fire-adapted communities in fire-resilient landscapes. Funding for these programs has declined since FY 2001 and that trend continues in FY 2009. This brief provides information on these community fire assistance programs and examines funding for those programs in the FY 09 budget.
> View fact sheet
Funding for Non-Federal and Federal Fire Management Needs to Be Better Balanced
Less than 10% of the $14 billion appropriated to the National Fire Plan in the last five years has gone to non-federal partners. This brief describes how funding can be redistributed to better balance non-federal and federal fire funding to help insure more effective national fire management.
> View fact sheet
Wildfire Suppression Budget Continues to Escalate; Solution is Needed
Federal fire suppression costs have increased significantly in recent years, exceeding $1 billion in five of the last seven years. Because the agencies' budgets are essentially flat year to year, to off-set increases in suppression funding for critical programs has been significantly reduced and more and more of the land management agencies' budgets are being used for fire management. This situation is clearly untenable and in this brief TWS advocates a three-prong solution: (1) agency commitment to cost containment; (2) investment in 21st century fire management and forest restoration; and (3) fixing the suppression funding structure.
> View fact sheet
TWS's Wildland Fire Appropriations Coalition Work
In keeping with the guiding principles of The Wilderness Society's wildland fire program - that "fire" can be used in a positive and proactive way to bring communities of interest together and that finding and building common ground with diverse interests is key to defining success on the ground - we work in coalition with a variety of diverse organizations on issues related to wildland fire management. Our coalition work brings groups from across the spectrum of interested stakeholders together, including groups that don't traditionally work with one another. We partner with other conservation groups, professional foresters, rural communities, county commissioners, state organizations, hunters and anglers, and others. We are currently engaged in efforts to better fund community fire assistance through the State Fire Assistance program.
TWS Works With Diverse Coalition to Help Address Community Fire Assistance Needs
This year TWS continues its work with a diverse coalition of forestry, government, and conservation groups that have come together with the shared goal of improving state and community wildfire protection. An essential requirement to meeting this goal is support for the State Fire Assistance Program. The State Fire Assistance Program (SFA) provides funds to state forestry agencies to help communities successfully prepare for and manage wildland fires, including funding for Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs).
> View State Fire Assistance Fact Sheet
> View State Fire Assistance: Key to Successful Comprehensive Wildfire Management