Senators: Forest service can’t see the forest for the (burning) trees

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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The U.S. Forest Service ran out of money in its firefighting fund last week, diverting $600 million from other programs so that it could afford to continue battling raging wildfires in California and elsewhere, the Associated Press reports.

The move underscores complaints by Western senators who have been inflamed by proposed cuts to the federal budget for removing highly flammable fuel from national forests, arguing that dumping money into firefighting efforts at the expense of preventative measures is “nonsensical.”

A bipartisan group of senators from Colorado, Idaho, Alaska and Oregon complained about the priorities of the Obama administration’s firefighting budget in a June letter to the Office of Management and Budget.

They pointed out that the cost of fighting massive blazes, like the one that recently flared up in Yosemite National Park, often comes at the expense of programs designed to thin and remove dead trees and brush that makes them so cataclysmic in the first place.

“[T]he 10-year rolling average budget formula that the agencies have used to set the annual budget request for suppression expenditures has translated into shortfalls in available suppression funds nearly every year since the mid-1990s,” the senators wrote. “When the budgeted amount is insufficient, the agency continues to suppress fires by reallocating funds from other non-fire programs. This practice is called fire borrowing. This approach to paying for firefighting is nonsensical and further increases wildland fire costs.”

The letter was signed by Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden.

The proposed 2014 Forest Service budget includes $995 million for fire suppression, an increase of $144 million over current levels. Meanwhile, the budget for hazardous fuels removal is $201 million — a $116 million reduction.

Since 2012, the funds made available for fire suppression have gone up 27 percent while those allocated to hazardous fuels removal have gone down by 37 percent.

The Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program run by the Department of Interior will also be gutted, from $419 million this year to $292 million next year.

Decades of prioritizing fire fighting over fire suppression have led to dangerous buildups of dead trees in the nation’s forest, a tinderbox situation made worse in Western states by a multi-year drought that has made cataclysmic wildfires an annual — and worsening — feature of the summertime months.

An Obama administration official quoted anonymously in the Durango Herald said that in times of budget cuts, money must be spent on “critical firefighting needs.”

But the senators point out the cost of fighting fires has often exceeded funds allocated, as was the case last week, requiring the Forest Service to further gut preventative programs.

“Just ten years ago, fighting fires accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget; last year it was over 40 percent,” they wrote.

Udall told the Herald that preventing fires is easier and less costly than fighting them, but said, “Common sense doesn’t always hold fast in Washington.”

This year, the Forest Service has already spent $967 million fighting fires. Before the $600 million diversion, only $50 million remained of the funds allocated for fire suppression.

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