Agency Heads Seek Congressional Help to Address Wildfires

August 22, 2014 | By Jerry Ashworth | Post a Comment

smoke-plume-1428335-mIf this doesn’t get you “fired up,” nothing will (excuse the pun!). The increasing amount of federal dollars being spent to put out forest fires is threatening the Forest Service’s budget, according to two federal department heads.

A recent blog post by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan brought attention to the changing conditions that are increasing the severity of wildfires and the damage that they cause. They noted that between 1980 and 2011, the average annual number of fires on federal land more than doubled, and the total area burned annually tripled.

The Forest Service’s firefighting appropriation has increased as a proportion of its overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today. “As the costs of wildfires have spiraled out of control, it has shrunk the budget of other Forest Service programs, taking millions of dollars from other critical forest health and land management priorities in order to pay for them,” they said. “What’s more, often the programs we are forced to divert funds from are the very programs which help to mitigate the impact of wildfires.”

The officials said the funds delegated to fighting wildfires has taken away monies for:

  • restoration projects designed specifically to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire while restoring forests to be healthier and more resilient;
  • public access and tourism on public forests that stimulates local economies;
  • capital investments and maintenance to improve access and infrastructure on federal lands; and,
  • research and development to continue to improve the science behind forest restoration, conservation and fire prevention and firefighting decisions.

The officials warned that if this severe fire activity continues, the Forest Service will soon run out of money and will be forced to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from other programs in order to put out the fires. They urged Congress to quickly approve legislation that would treat forest fires like other natural disasters. Hopefully, an agreement can be reached; the wildfire threat isn’t going away anytime soon.

What do you think? Should Congress pass wildfire legislation? Let us know.

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