Forest Service Report Details Costs of Fighting Fires

Aug. 25, 2014 – The US Dept. of Agriculture recently released a report that examines the impact of fighting fires on the US Forest Service over the past two decades. According to the report, the amount of money spent fighting fires has increased substantially; so much so that in all but four of the last 20 years the Forest Service has had to spend more than the amount allotted for firefighting. Each time this occurred, the Forest Service had to “borrow” funds from other programs to continue their fire suppression efforts. Unfortunately, when this happens the transfer of such funds prevents the Forest Service from performing other necessary functions including those that would help reduce the incidence of future fires.

According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the average number of fires on Federal lands has more than doubled since 1980 and the total area burned annually has tripled. He added that climate change, population growth near forests, and brush and fuel buildup have drastically increased wildfire severity and the cost of fighting them.

For its part, trail funding for the National Forest System’s trail program has dropped 14% since 2000 – and that is before the Forest Service “borrows” from program funding to fight fires. As a result of this reduced funding for trail maintenance and improvement fewer temporary employees are being hired, maintenance is being deferred, more trails are being reclassified to a lower class, and fewer trail bridges are being replaced.

There is now legislation in the House (H.R. 3992) and Senate (S. 1875), which would provide a solution to this annual funding-by-crisis mode that the Forest Service finds itself in. Under this legislation, years in which additional funding for firefighting is required, the funding request would be treated similarly to those of other natural disasters, such as the budget request mechanisms used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

American Hiking Society has been supportive of this legislation and has also engaged with the US Forest Service and others regarding fire suppression efforts and funding. In early summer, AHS president Gregory Miller, along with other advocates, was a part of a dialogue held with Secretary Vilsack and other officials which focused on seeking solutions to this pressing issue.

Read the USDA Forest Service report.