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.