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.
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.
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.