Joel Webster

August 15, 2017

This Dysfunctional Wildfire Funding Model All But Ensures More Public Lands Will Burn

The need for a ‘fire borrowing’ fix grows as the West burns

With elk and deer seasons right around the corner, I’ve been running, biking, and hiking as often as I can on the public lands near the TRCP’s Western office in Missoula, Mont. You’d think that my main challenge would be climbing a particularly steep mountain trail, but lately the real hurdle has been simply trying to breathe—the smell of smoke from the many active wildfires in western Montana clings to my clothing long after I’ve returned to my desk.

To make matters worse, many of our nearby public and private lands have been evacuated and remain closed because of the wildfires bearing down on our community. At worst, these wildfires are terrifying. At best, they’re a major inconvenience for those of us who are living for fall.

When the rains finally come and the smoke clears, we’ll look back at 2017 as being a nasty fire year in Montana and other areas of the West. It should also be the year when Congress finally fixes the wildfire funding crisis that has made it difficult for the U.S. Forest Service to do its job and has left our public lands even more susceptible to fire. It’s a cycle that’s fueling the flames.

Image courtesy of Kerry Sullivan.
How We’re All Getting Burned

Like all federal agencies, the Forest Service has an annual budget. It’s meant to underwrite maintenance of roads, trails, and campgrounds, and active management of our forests—projects like thinning trees and improving habitat through prescribed burns or other tactics. They also depend on that budget to pay for firefighting on public lands. The problem is that wildfire seasons are getting longer and more intense in the West, and when wildfire season is particularly intense, the Forest Service is required to pull money from other accounts to pay for fire suppression.

When this happens, forest management and maintenance projects get put on hold, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the agency to do its job. Since 2002, this cycle has been an ongoing issue for the Forest Service. In turn, other land-management programs have been neglected, resulting in unsatisfactory national forest management and increased frustration all around.

To put the current budget crisis in perspective, wildfire suppression costs made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget in 1995. In 2015, wildfires cost the agency 50 percent of its budget for the whole year. According to the Forest Service, if left unchecked, “the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent,” further exacerbating the problem.

Without a fix for fire borrowing, there’s no doubt that the shortfall in funding will continue to fail us, leaving our forests vulnerable, poorly managed, or completely torched.

Image courtesy of Marc Moss/flickr. Header courtesy of USFS/flickr.
How Do We Fix This?

Fortunately, two widely supported bipartisan solutions are on the table, both of which would take steps to ensure that the most extreme wildfires would be granted suppression funding from the Disaster Relief Fund—the pool of money that is used in the case of catastrophic weather events like floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. In other words, the proposed legislation would ensure that large, dangerous, and expensive forest fires are treated like all other weather-related national disasters, which seems like common sense.

The first bill is the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which has strong support in Congress and from a diverse coalition of interests ranging from sportsmen to the timber industry and environmental community. A second bipartisan solution has been proposed by Senators Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). The newest National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act includes a provision that would prohibit transferring funding away from non-fire programs and, at the same time, establishes a new source of funding for wildfire suppression through the Disaster Relief Fund.

Either of these much needed fixes directly addresses the continued erosion of agency budgets from the increased cost of wildfire fighting. This is the support we need for thoughtful, active management of our public lands—especially right now.

A Hazy Outlook

It is concerning that Congress has been unable to get a funding fix across the finish line in the last several years. It seems that the problem is forgotten as soon as fire season ends, but out-of-sight-out-of-mind conservation won’t take us far in maintaining the public lands legacy that Theodore Roosevelt helped create and that makes our country so unique.

My hope is that this year’s smoky summer will linger in lawmakers’ minds as much as the scent of it lingers on my pack. But it’s up to sportsmen and women to convince our elected officials that it’s time to extinguish the problem once and for all. With more than 75 active fires burning nearly 1,000,000 acres across the U.S. right now, these solutions couldn’t come at a more pivotal time.

11 Responses to “This Dysfunctional Wildfire Funding Model All But Ensures More Public Lands Will Burn”

  1. Matt Johnson

    While I get the need to move $’s to suppress fires – why do we need to suppress so many when fires are a natural part of the forest eco system. If we keep the fires down, won’t it just push the BIG ONE down the line? Help me understand please as I see this playing out in northern MN here – we keep the fires down and we’re bound to have a huge fire like we did in the early 1900’s and again here in the early 2000’s.

    • Matt,
      You are exactly correct, in my opinion. Just to flesh out this line of thought a little further, there are two important reasons to suppress fire activity across the West (IMO): first, is the need to protect residential, civil/government and commercial property, and human lives. This is the rationale behind using funds from the Disaster Relief Appropriation funding to suppress fires that threaten destruction of man-made improvements, and to save lives. (Not “save the planet”, but protect human lives that are clearly and directly endangered by the proximate treat of fire.).

      Alternatively, one could argue that (except for the protection of human life) such risks should not be borne by the US Govt (and in turn, by all US taxpayers), but instead by private insurance companies and, to the extent no commercial insurance companies are willing to underwrite the risks, by disaster insurance pools established and funded by local, state and federal governments. This is analogous to the argument the author is making for the federal government to directly fund ALL firefighting efforts, for any fires wherever they arise. However, I would argue that the author makes a mistake and overreaches by not distinguishing among efforts to protect life, residential/commercial/government improvements, and undeveloped property. I would postulate that most people would agree on the need to prioritize and spend money (your and my tax dollars) to protect

      The second reason to supress fires in the West is what I would call “environmental,” including health effects of breathing smoke, the impact on tourism, and the visual horror of seeing a 100-foot high wall of flame devouring everything in its path. I think that while most people (especially those living in Western states affected by wildfires) would likely agree that these are important justifications for the federal government to spend whatever it takes to supress wildfires, a more reasoned argument would support your line of thinking, specifically, that wildfires be allowed to burn so long as they do not pose an immediate or potential threat to life or property.

      R. Pond

  2. Tess Parsons

    They aren’t public lands or wild places; this is planet Earth, the Earth that alone, generates and releases all of mankind’s life lines for life itself and the reasons humankind is alive and safe. We don’t want these shares of planet Earth and her strands in the web of all life to burn to death. Please, do all you can to prevent wild fires. Thank you, so much.

  3. Nathan Weaver

    I ask this as a state forester. We generate revenue for state wildlife management using timber sales, but from your article and a few interactions I’ve had with federal employees they seem to treat timber sales as a cost and not a revenue generator. Can you break down why that is?

  4. Matt Rodgers

    Good to hear that some financial relief could be in store for the proper management of our forests. I’d like too see more focus on how we can make our forest management more economically sustainable; let’s start mulling mandates on certain building codes to be met for folks that decide they want to live in or are in close proximity to areas that forest fires could threaten and perhaps requiring them to pay into a federal firefighting fund. Fighting forest fires in remote areas is costly and, perhaps, superfluous in many cases; I believe focusing on the utilization of timbering to generate money, thin out our forests and lessen the intensity of these burns falls in line with TR’s conservation vision…burned areas make for darned good elk hunting in many cases too!

  5. Tom Kuekes

    I’m a retired Forest Service employee with 32 years of service, the final 11 as a District Ranger. I was involved in fighting some of the largest wildfires in California history. This article is right on! The only thing I would add, as mentioned by another commentator, is that residential development in the wildland-urban-interface has contributed hugely to this problem. When a large fire gets cooking, the fear anymore is that it will end up burning a bunch of homes. Consequently tremendous amounts of federal money are spent on fire suppression efforts which could be reduced if counties would adopt better fire-safe building codes.

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Guest blogger Debbie Hanson

August 14, 2017

Five Things Your Fishing License Does for Conservation While You Catch Fish

These are your license dollars at work for fish habitat, water quality, and the next generation of anglers

When you’re buying or renewing your fishing license, you’re probably only thinking about the possibility of the new season or exploring a promising new stretch of river. But are you aware of just how hard your fishing license is working on your behalf of your future days on the water?

Here are five examples of how the dollars spent on your fishing licenses, boat registrations, and excise taxes on fishing gear and boat fuel purchases go back to conservation and public access. And at $1.1 billion that’s a sizeable down payment on the next generation of anglers in America.

Improving Fishing and Boating Access

First, funds from license sales go toward fishing and boating access projects. One example is the Ramps & Pier Program in Mississippi, which helps pay for repairs to existing access points and the construction of four to six new boat ramps each year. The state of Oregon also has an excellent model of involving state and federal agencies in adding and upgrading new boating facilities.

Enhancing Water Quality

Boat registration funds help implement clean water projects that benefit fish habitat and improve the experience of anglers and boaters. The Clean Vessel Act program in Hawaii, for example, helped use these funds to construct a new sewage pump-out station and three new floating restrooms at the Haleiwa Small Boat Harbor—all in an effort to protect the sparkling turquoise waters of Hawaii for future generations.

 

Maintaining Fish Habitat

The excise taxes on your fishing gear go toward fisheries maintenance projects that help manage our state sport fisheries. For example, in New York State, biologists collect data through creel surveys and work to restore fish habitat for native brookies, American shad, river herring, and striped bass largely thanks to the taxes paid by the manufacturers of your fishing rods, reels, lures, baits, and flies. In Massachusetts, these funds are used to map fish habitat with GPS technology, sonar, and underwater vehicles through the state’s Fisheries Habitat Program. The more these experts learn, the better prepared they are to spot habitat issues and plan for improvements.

 

 

Teaching and Recruiting New Anglers

Fishing license funds also go to work for educational and recruitment programs that introduce new anglers to the sport. As more people take up fishing, there is a greater need for education on topics like species identification, conservation, regulations, and proper catch-and-release techniques. The state of Texas offers free workshops for first-timers or anyone who wants a refresher on the basics, and the saltwater angler education programs hosted by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries have been so successful that they hope to extend courses to all coastal areas of the state.

 

Planning for Long-Term Conservation

With an eye toward investing in our marine and freshwaters resources, as well as the next generation of anglers, fishing license fees support long-term conservation plans for our rivers and streams. This robust funding, which has nothing to do with the federal balance sheet, is critical to ensuring an adequate quantity and quality of water to maintain the natural balance of aquatic ecosystems. Texas has used this money to fund its River Studies Program that addresses long-term water development, water planning, and water quality issues.

 

Whether state agencies are studying rainbow trout populations or repairing boat ramps, your license fees are put to excellent use. Want to get started on your next fishing trip and give back to conservation?  Buy or renew your license here.

Sportsmen and women have a long history of giving back to conservation through our purchases. Read about the federal program responsible for that funding model and the hunters in one Western state who wholeheartedly supported raising license fees earlier this year to do even more for fish and wildlife.

TakeMeFishing.org contributor Debbie Hanson is an outdoor writer and avid angler who has written articles on fishing and boating for publications such as USA Today Hunt & Fish and Game & Fish Magazine. She is a member of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Read her blogs at takemefishing.org/blog and visit her personal blog at shefishes2.com.

Photos courtesy of Canstock Photo.

Travis Cooke

August 8, 2017

A Flood-Prone County in N.Y. Needed a Healthier River, Not Just Road Repairs

One example of how natural infrastructure—beyond the bridges and highways we tend to picture—helped improve public safety for future floods and give a boost to a legendary trout fishery

Situated along the Pennsylvania border in the western foothills of the Catskills, Sands Creek is one of the most critical trout spawning tributaries in the Upper Delaware River watershed. The creek feeds into the West Branch of the Upper Delaware in the village of Hancock, where the downtown overlooks the confluence of East and West branches. This is also one of the most frequently flooded counties in the nation. Anglers are drawn to the Upper Delaware because of its feisty population of wild brown and rainbow trout and legendary mayfly and caddis hatches.

This is a place where sportsmen and women have been a part of achieving a mindset shift around infrastructure: Beyond roads, bridges, and airports, natural infrastructure—as simple and cost-effective as strategically placed boulders—has re-shaped the Upper Delaware so that it’s safer and more flood-resilient, while enhancing fish habitat and sportsmen’s access.

Here’s how the community came together and why lawmakers should broaden the scope of what they consider to be critical infrastructure.

A wild brown trout caught in the West Branch of the Upper Delaware, just below Sands Creek. Photo by Friends of the Upper Delaware River.
When It Rains, It Floods

New York’s Delaware County, home to Sands Creek, is no stranger to rising waters: The county has had more federal flood emergency declarations than any other in the state, and it is among the most frequently flooded counties in the nation. A devastating flood in 2006, the third in as many years, actually washed away much of the basic infrastructure in the region. In 2011, the one-two punch of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee spurred conservation groups and local government officials into action, not just to rebuild washed out roads, but to revamp the river so that future floods wouldn’t have the same negative impacts.

“Those storms really changed the way people think about floods,” says Jeff Skelding, executive director of the Friends of the Upper Delaware River. “As a fisherman who grew up on the Delaware, I knew we had to get creative in preparing for floods if we wanted to preserve the river for future generations.”

Enter FUDR and a host of collaborative conservation partners and government officials.

Along with Trout Unlimited, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and officials from Hancock and Delaware County, as well as outdoor recreation businesses like Orvis and Patagonia, FUDR worked to set the Sands Creek restoration project in motion. Beginning in 2012 and completed last year, the project has returned roughly one-tenth of the creek to a near-natural state with the help of local engineers and contractors.

A restored flood plain (left) after removal of a manmade berm alongside Sands Creek in Delaware County, New York. Photo by Friends of the Upper Delaware River.
Building Blocks: Boulder Clusters and Log Toes

The crew installed several natural infrastructure components to restore flood plains, fortify stream banks, and enhance fish habitat.

Carefully placed boulder clusters now help prevent river-altering gravel and sediment erosion and boost water quality for downstream communities, while the rocky surfaces have become prime areas for trout to spawn. In a love story for the ages, these boulders were coupled with nearby clusters of logs that provided instream cover and organic material for spawning fish. Together, these log and boulder clusters dramatically improve river health and make for great fishing holes.

Another structure called a roughened log toe, formed by placing multiple logs with their roots intact in a bend in the creek, has helped protect the banks from high-speed floodwaters. By absorbing the impact of rushing high water, roughened log toes prevent mass erosion, which is critically important along roadsides. Over time, the water churning against the root wads will also create cool, shady areas for fish to congregate.

“These guys were used to taking logs out of the water, and here we are asking them to put these logs in the water,” Skelding laughs. “It really is a new way of thinking about mitigating flood damages and protecting fish habitat.”

The next time Delaware County has a flood emergency, residents along Sands Creek can rest assured that their community is more resilient than in previous years while local anglers might even be able to wet a line much sooner. Not bad for pushing some boulders and logs around. And with an all-in project cost of about $300,000, these benefits came at a steep discount compared to many traditional infrastructure options.

Toe wood is installed along Sands Creek, which will absorb high-velocity floodwaters and create fish habitat. Photo by Friends of the Upper Delaware River.
Today, Sands Creek—Tomorrow, the Mississippi

The success of the Sands Creek restoration project highlights the importance of collaboration in conservation, and sportsmen and women played a crucial role in this case. We think this is an important story because, as policymakers consider upgrading our nation’s infrastructure, it is imperative that natural infrastructure solutions, extending from erosion control to wildlife crossing structures, are part of the discussion.

Incorporating these ideas early on can help save money that would have been spent cleaning up a disastrous flood, plus the benefits to wildlife habitat and river access mean anglers can keep doing what we love – all of which boosts local economies.

When conservationists engage with government officials and local businesses to build better rivers, not just new bridges and roads, the benefits can flow far, far downstream.

Want to hear more about re-engineering a river? Click here to hear Jeff Skelding discuss FUDR’s work on the Orvis Fly Fishing Guide Podcast with Tom Rosenbauer.

Top photo by Garth Lenz.

Julia Peebles

August 3, 2017

Congress Wants to Boost Renewables and Fund Conservation

A bill moving through the House could create a rare win-win scenario for energy and wildlife

The Trump administration and Republican leadership in Congress have an aggressive agenda for the next few years: To reform the tax code, balance a federal budget, increase funds to build a wall along the United States-Mexico border, and pass a one-trillion-dollar package that addresses America’s crumbling infrastructure while providing stability for rural communities. The infrastructure package is going to be decorated like a Christmas tree with bills and amendments, but some ornaments will light up more than others.

One of these may be the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act, which unanimously passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee last week. The bill, which was introduced by Congressman Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and co-sponsored by 38 representatives from both sides of the aisle, would promote economic growth in the energy development sector while providing for conservation from a portion of the leasing revenues.

Here’s How PLREDA Would Work

The bill would achieve a win-win scenario by thoughtfully balancing renewable energy development and habitat needs through a robust permitting system and creating a consistent stream of revenue to fund essential fish and wildlife management projects in proximity to renewable energy projects.

PLREDA would boost the incentive for local stakeholders to support renewable energy projects, because 25 percent of the leasing revenues would go back to counties and states. Another 25 percent of leasing revenues would be dedicated to a fish and wildlife conservation fund, the Renewable Resource Conservation Fund. These funds could help open up access to public lands, enhance clean water resources, and improve habitat for elk, wild trout, mule deer, sage grouse, and other important game species.

TRCP strongly supports this bipartisan bill, which illustrates a balanced, common-sense approach to energy development on public lands. At a time when lawmakers have many legislative priorities, it’s heartening to see investments in America’s infrastructure and economic health that also create new revenue streams for conservation.

Learn More

Want to hear the latest on PLREDA and other legislation that could affect the places where you hunt and fish? Become a TRCP member (it’s free) and we’ll keep you informed.

Top photo by BLM/Flickr.

Ed Arnett

by:

posted in: Outdoor Economy

August 2, 2017

Here Are the CliffsNotes on Why Everyone’s Still Talking About Sage Grouse

From signs of decline decades ago to a definitive moment for sagebrush country—catch up and learn what’s at stake for sage grouse and the sportsmen who depend on them.

I had hiked for what seemed like hours and endless miles through the central Wyoming sagebrush, working my dogs in every place I’d ever found sage grouse in years past. I was a bit dumbfounded as these areas usually produced birds in fairly short order, but it seemed that all those honey holes were dry this year. I wondered what happened, as I kneeled down and poured some water into a bowl for the dogs and then took a sip myself.

All of a sudden, my chocolate lab, Deke, perked up his ears, began wagging his tail, and briskly walked toward a line of sage that we had yet to push through about 20 yards away. Apparently, the wind had shifted into our faces, and he was finally on some birds. No sooner had I grabbed my 20-gauge when a half-dozen sage grouse erupted from the brush. I dropped one, fired again and missed, and then hit a second bird with my last round. Just like that, we were done for the day—and the season, as it turned out. There were no birds the next day, no matter how far we wandered.

That hunt took place in 2012, just as I had started working in the complex world of policy and management of the greater sage grouse with the TRCP. It was also during a crippling drought, the likes of which the West hadn’t experienced for several years.

I wasn’t the only hunter to get skunked, either. The second-lowest number of male sage grouse since 1965 were counted on their breeding grounds that year, following decades of sagebrush being degraded or lost to urbanization, crop conversion, energy development, fire, and invasive weeds. In total, the West had lost nearly 50 percent of its sagebrush country by the new millennium, and grouse numbers followed suit, declining about one percent each year on average since the mid-1960s.

A lot has happened since then. Though state agency biologists put forth a range-wide conservation strategy in 2006, it took a petition to list the species—and ultimately a court order mandating that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determine whether the species warranted protections under the Endangered Species Act by September 2015—to send most states and federal agencies into action.

Wyoming led the way in this effort, bringing multiple interest groups together to craft a balanced approach to conservation and knowing full well that a listing would cripple the state and much of the West. As the September 2015 deadline approached, 11 Western states had all developed some sort of conservation plan for greater sage grouse, and the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service finalized their own plans for conservation on public lands just before the USFWS’s final decision was announced.

Private landowners jumped in, too. The Natural Resource Conservation Service, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, created the Sage Grouse Initiative to help landowners get technical advice on tailoring their operations to help grouse and their rangeland and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into habitat improvements, like removing invasive trees to improve grass and forb (sage grouse food) production. It was mutually beneficial for ranchers and the iconic dancing birds—as one rancher from Oregon has famously said, “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”

Sage grouse aren’t the only game species that rely on the sagebrush habitat. Image courtesy of Nick Dobric.

When this historic collaborative work paid off, and the Department of Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the range-wide population of greater sage grouse did not warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act, a collective sigh of relief could be felt across the West.

I’ve been a professional wildlife biologist for almost 30 years, and for me and most of my colleagues it is clear that the work to benefit sage grouse over the last several years has been the greatest landscape-scale conservation effort undertaken in modern times. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, has stated that the unprecedented and extraordinary collaboration we’ve seen sets forth a model for the future of conservation in America.

But the work has only just begun. One thing we all need to keep in mind is that the decision to keep sage grouse off a threatened or endangered species list was predicated on the promise of implementing both federal and state conservation plans simultaneously and without interruption, all while conservation efforts on private lands continue. No single effort can stand alone to deliver the necessary conservation benefits or regulatory certainty to avoid a future listing.

But major amendments and lengthy disruptions could drastically alter the course for habitat conservation and undo years of hard work—years that sage grouse don’t have to waste.

There’s simply no denying that long-term conservation measures will benefit everyone in the end.

So why do we think it’s so important for sportsmen and women to understand all of this, even after the not warranted decision for sage grouse was issued? We depend on public lands for quality habitat that allows fish and wildlife populations to thrive. And we know that sagebrush provides habitat for more than 350 species of plants and wildlife, including many beyond sage grouse, like pronghorns, wild trout, mule deer, and elk.

Major disruptions in #sagegrouse plans could drastically alter the course for habitat #conservation. Click To Tweet

These iconic species define the Western landscape and our days afield. Meanwhile, the extraordinary outdoor recreation opportunities in sagebrush country help drive spending in our local communities, supporting the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy and more than 7.5 million jobs. These pursuits mean big business, and the places where we are free to hunt and fish define us as Americans.

This is why we need to keep this historic collaborative conservation effort moving forward, while continuing to work with the states and all stakeholders on thoughtful improvements. It is critical to our outdoor heritage, economy, and Western way of life.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

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