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Lincoln County: USDA calls for change in forest fire funding

Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture are calling for a change in how funding is allocated to the Forest Service to offset the growing costs of fighting forest wildfires. Major wild fires should be treated as natural disasters and be funded as such, not by shifting financial resources within the agency’s budget from other projects, they contend.

According to a news release from the USDA, for the first time in its 110-year history, the Forest Service, which falls under the federal department, is spending more than 50 percent of its budget to suppress the nation’s wildfires. A new report released Wednesday by the Forest Service estimates that within a decade, the agency will spend more than two-thirds of its budget to battle ever-increasing fires, while mission-critical programs that can help prevent fires in the first place such as forest restoration and watershed and landscape management, will continue to suffer. Meanwhile, the report notes, the catastrophic blazes are projected to burn twice as many acres by 2050.

Residents of Lincoln County and the village of Ruidoso, having experienced a series of devastating fires, the most recent the Little Bear in 2012, tend to support channeling more money into thinning of forests and other management techniques to reduce fuel for wild fires. A significant portion of the 44,500 acres that burned in the Little Bear Fire three years ago was slated for a thinning project in 2011, that was held up by protests from two environmental groups. The acreage burned in the fire, destroying the trees and valuable wildlife habitat, along with more than 200 homes.

At the time, a forest service official said while the fire as a whole could not have been stopped by thinning efforts, especially with 40 mph wind gusts, damage to the Bonito watershed likely would have been reduced significantly. The thinning project was aimed at 11,600 acres surrounging Bonito Lake, but was delayed by the appeal from the two groups that contended the thinning plan did not adhere to guidelines established by the Forest Service and had the potential to harm the Bonito watershed and endanagered species in the area.

Bonito Lake was filled with ash and debris that washed down after the June 2012 fire and since the fire has been closed to recreational use or as a water supply source for the city of Alamogordo and Holloman Air Force Base.

The county benefitted this year from an unusually wet spring and summer, maintaining moisture in the forest and helping fire fighters quickly extinguish blazes that spring up.

As the costs of fighting wildfires grow each year with longer, hotter, more unpredictable fire seasons, the report details how the Forest Service has experienced significant shifts in staffing and resources. In effect, the Forest Service saw its money pool drop by nearly half a billion dollars in 2015, compared to the funding available in 1995 to handle non-fire related programs, the bulk of its programming. At the same time, the agency experienced a 39 percent loss of non-fire personnel, from about 18,000 in 1998 to fewer than 11,000 in 2015, while the fire staff more than doubled.

Dedicated to its mission of protecting more than 190 million acres of federal forests and grasslands, as well as lives and personal property from the growing threats of catastrophic wildfire, the Forest Service in recent years absorbed the growing costs related to fire and relied increasingly on moving resources from non-fire accounts to cover firefighting costs, officials said in the release.

“Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “But the way we fund our Forest Service hasn’t changed in generations. Meanwhile, everything else suffers, from the very restoration projects that have been proven to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the future, to watershed projects that protect drinking water for one in five Americans, to recreation projects that support thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity. The time has come for Congress to change the way it funds the Forest Service.”

Fire seasons are 78 days longer than in the 1970s. Since 2000, at least 10 states experienced their largest fires on record, USFS officials said. Increasing development near forest boundaries also drives up costs, as more than 46 million homes and more than 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfire in the United States, they said.

“These factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year, and there is no end in sight,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said. “The release of this report is very timely based on the current hectic pace of wildfires in this country. We have been pointing out this challenge for the past few years, but we have not been able to effectively address it through our current budget process. It is important to keep the focus on this problem, ensure the discussion continues and a solution to the funding problem be found.”

By 2025, the cost of fire suppression is expected to grow to nearly $1.8 billion dollars, according to the report, but the Forest Service would be expected to absorb those costs into its regular budget, which has remained relatively flat. If the trends continue, the Forest Service will be forced to take an additional $700 million dollars over the next 10 years from all the other programs. No other natural disasters are funded this way, agency officials contend.

When fire suppression costs more than Congress appropriates to the Forest Service in any given year, the agency is forced to transfer additional funds from already depleted programs, called “fire transfer,” they said.

The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, already introduced in the House and Senate, is an important step forward in addressing the funding problems Vilsack said, The proposed legislation, which mirrors a similar proposal in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, would provide a fiscally responsible mechanism to treat wildfires more like other natural disasters, end “fire transfers” and partially replenish the ability to restore resilient forests and protect against future fire outbreaks, he said.

“We must treat catastrophic wildfire not like a routine expense, but as the natural disasters they truly are, Vilsack said. I”t’s time to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs.”

To read the full report, go to: http://www.fs.fed.us/about-agency /budget-performance/cost-fire-operations.

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©2015 the Ruidoso News (Ruidoso, N.M.)

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