Wildfires are becoming an escalating threat in the Western United States. With each passing year, wildfires are increasing in frequency, burning more acres and proving more costly to suppress. Despite the escalation of wildfires and wildfire-associated damage, however, very little has been done to assist the Forest Service in its efforts to pay for wildfire suppression and prevention. Suppression costs are responsible for more of the Forest Service budget each year, forcing cuts to programs vital to conservation, forestry management and sportsmen.
Why is this happening?
A combination of factors is responsible for the increase in frequency and severity of wildfires, the most important of which is climate change. Higher temperatures across the United States make America’s forests drier through increased evaporation rates, decreased precipitation and subsequent drought. As a result, the fire season is two-and-a-half months longer now than in the 1970s. It’s very simple: drier forests are simply more likely to catch on fire.
A decrease in proper forestry management practices plays a role, as well. Ironically enough, this in part results from the increasing costs associated with wildfire suppression. Because suppression and prevention dollars come from the same budget, money used to suppress wildfires means fewer dollars available to prevent them. Suppression costs accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1991 but have risen to 47 percent in 2012, leaving very little left to engage in programs vital to fire prevention.
What needs to change?
Before suppression costs consumed nearly half of the Forest Service budget, the agency could afford to implement a variety of forestry management programs proven to mitigate the risk of wildfires, such as hazardous fuels reduction. A healthy, properly managed forest is far less likely to burn catastrophically.
Another important factor in the increased costs of firefighting has to do with the “Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).” This refers to development along areas prone to wildfires. The proximity between manmade structures and such areas has increased as development increases along national parks and other wild areas, forcing the Forest Service to prioritize property protection in its fire suppression and prevention activities.
But in recent years, the increase in wildfire frequency and longer fire seasons, combined with the higher costs associated with fighting fire in the WUI, has forced the Forest Service to annually engage in “fire borrowing” to pay for suppression – meaning it must take dollars from other forestry management programs to pay for the debilitating costs associated with putting out wildfires.
Why should this matter to sportsmen?
Without budgetary reform, the Forest Service cannot afford to put out wildfires and effectively engage in forestry management at an appropriate scale. This means that forests across the United States will become less healthy and more prone to catastrophic fire. As a result, forests and habitat will suffer, affecting people and wildlife throughout the United States.
How can sportsmen help fix this problem?
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 167 and S. 235), a bill introduced in both the House and Senate, would put an end to the problem of fire borrowing – and do it without increasing federal spending. For budgetary purposes, the legislation would classify the most extreme wildfires as natural disasters, a designation previously reserved for tornadoes, hurricanes and flash floods. This would allow the suppression costs for America’s largest and most expensive wildfires to be paid using federal emergency dollars. While the Forest Service still would be responsible for suppressing wildfires, the money to do so would be drawn from another, more appropriate source.
This simple yet effective measure would permit hundreds of millions of dollars in the Forest Service budget to be used as Congress intended, allowing the agency to resume forestry management and fire prevention programs. If passed, this legislation would make America’s forests and wildlife habitat healthier while simultaneously mitigating the risk of future wildfires.
While the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, more congressional support is needed to ensure its passage. If you care about the future of American hunting and fishing and your representatives are not signed onto this legislation please TAKE ACTION here and help make a difference.