Joel Webster

November 30, 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. More than 56 percent of the Forest Service budget is now spent on fire suppression, with the number expected to surpass two thirds of the budget by 2021 (four years sooner than previously predicted).

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 2 million acres burned by September and likely millions more scorched in the months since, these solutions couldn’t come at a more pivotal time.

This post was originally published on August 15, 2017 and has since been updated.

12 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.

  6. Dave Valle

    Do either of these proposed acts add funding directly to fuel reduction or fire prevention? Another area that Congress needs to increase funding for the US Forest Service and BLM is for recreation staff and maintenance. Multiple-use recreation is the number one public use of our federal lands, but it is way underfunded. This is why trails are not adequately maintained, and the campground infastucture is crumbling.

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Joel Webster

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. More than 56 percent of the Forest Service budget is now spent on fire suppression, with the number expected to surpass two thirds of the budget by 2021 (four years sooner than previously predicted).

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 2 million acres burned by September and likely millions more scorched in the months since, these solutions couldn’t come at a more pivotal time.

This post was originally published on August 15, 2017 and has since been updated.

Whit Fosburgh

November 28, 2017

For All We Get, Hunters and Anglers Give Back

Here’s to all the ways the outdoors inspire us to step up, grab a shovel, become a mentor, or spend with a purpose (and why it’s more critical than ever)

Having grown up in upstate New York, hunting and fishing have been omnipresent in my life for as long as I can remember. My family lived two miles back on a dirt road, with no neighbors except for the animals in the unbroken forest, complete with a native brook trout stream. When other kids went to the mall or watched TV, my brother and I were outside — often with a fly rod or shotgun in our hands.

Even as our lives progressed — college, jobs in the city, marriage, kids — those early years continued to guide us. And for all we got out of the outdoors, there came a time when we felt responsible for giving something back.

My brother and I both got jobs in conservation, but it has been my experience that most hunters and anglers feel this same sense of duty on some level. We volunteer, speak up on a particular issue, or donate money and/or labor to a group we believe in. And that continues to be critical, not only to our best conservation successes, but also to the path forward for our hunting and fishing traditions.

An Ethic That Goes Back to Roosevelt

It is no accident that hunters and anglers have always been the driving force behind conservation in America, or that Theodore Roosevelt is generally remembered as the father of conservation in our country. He credited wild places and wildlife for his development as a man, and he feared that the rugged individualism the wilderness taught him would be lost if he didn’t succeed in making conservation the nation’s highest priority.

During his tenure as president, Roosevelt protected more than 240 million acres for national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife refuges. He and his colleagues ended market hunting and ushered in a system of principles now known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Subsequent generations have expanded Roosevelt’s legacy by creating funding mechanisms, primarily through excise taxes and license fees, to pay for the professional management and acquisition of millions of acres for the public to enjoy.

I believe that the ethic of volunteerism prevalent in hunting and fishing stems from these same ideals: We should show our gratitude for all that we take from our natural resources by providing service, and we should ensure the future of a critical conservation funding source (as much as our uniquely American traditions) by taking new hunters and anglers outside.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Those Closest to the Land Must Take Responsibility

Those who do not hunt or fish will probably never understand the draw. Unless you’ve done it, it’s impossible to know the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes with catching a rising trout on a dry fly, or serving your own venison on Christmas Eve. You become part of the woods or the river, able to sense subtle changes all around and feel incredible empathy for the game you pursue — and that’s not always easy to explain. But as an outdoorsman, I was raised to appreciate the natural world that functions in an amazing, often brutal harmony, in spite of man’s alterations.

Today we all have a duty to understand and preserve this unique experience. Too often we take for granted what Roosevelt and generations of conservation-minded leaders have left us: a public lands network that is unparalleled in all the world, the best-managed fish and wildlife populations of any nation, and the ability for all Americans to hunt and fish, regardless of class or economic status. It is a system that benefits everyone, from the sportsman to the hiker to those who simply want to drink clean water or experience wide open spaces.

But Roosevelt’s legacy is under attack. For more than three decades, budgets for agencies that manage our public lands have been squeezed and shrunk. In the 1970s, conservation spending made up more than two percent of the federal budget; today it is only about one percent, and we’re projecting that piece of the pie will shrink even more in 2018.

Recreation facilities across the country are being closed or lie in disrepair. The U.S. Forest Service now spends more than half its annual budget fighting wildfires, up from less than 20 percent two decades ago. The financial crisis this creates for the agency hamstrings it from meeting the expectations of the public. There has also been a chorus of voices saying that our federal public lands—or the authority to manage them—should be turned over to the states.

We Can’t Do It Without You

Our public lands are fundamental to maintaining the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy, especially when you consider that 72 percent of Western hunters depend on public lands for their access. And those of us, like me, who spend a lot of time in the Northeast cherish our public lands, in part because we have so few of them. That’s why none of us can afford to sit back and assume that what we have been given will be here forever.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Today, on Giving Tuesday, our national day of magnanimity on the heels of a long weekend of feasting and gratitude, we’d like to thank you for all that you already do for conservation and perhaps urge you to do a little more. From buying an extra duck stamp (or two or three) to helping out at a kids’ fishing derby to reading a TRCP alert like this one and deciding to take action—it’s all extremely important work.

Support the work we do today by making a donation. And watch your email inbox for more chances to pitch in with your time or your stories. The American sportsman’s experience is valuable and worth preserving. No one else will do it for us.

 

Top photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

Ed Arnett

by:

posted in: Outdoor Economy

November 22, 2017

There’s One Day Left to Speak Up for Conservation of a Western Icon

Two hunters recently followed sage grouse sign to the mule deer buck of a lifetime, but both of these species (and more) could be at risk if sagebrush conservation is set back

Sagebrush-covered hills spanned the horizon as my cousin Larry and I put a stalk on a group of mule deer we had just spotted. As we walked down into a draw, I noticed sign from a bird that many have only have read about in recent years. No sooner had I taken another step when four greater sage grouse busted from the brush. They could have spooked our quarry, but didn’t. (We still didn’t get a shot at those deer.)

The next morning, we crept through some of the best grouse habitat I’d ever seen—droppings, feathers, and birds were all around us. That’s where we got our buck, a beautiful mature muley that had been bedded down in the sage.

This is all to say that sage grouse have shared the sagebrush ecosystem with Western big game like mule deer and pronghorns for thousands of years. The same habitat that has been lost and fragmented by energy development, fire, and invasive species—decimating sage grouse populations—also supports 350 other species that could be struggling next. And the many varied stakeholders who want to see sagebrush thrive have a chance right now to make sure that the current administration stays the course on conservation plans that took years to iron out in the first place.

Here’s why we need your help by December 1.

The Conservation Compromise of a Lifetime

Once numbering in the millions, sage grouse populations have dropped precipitously in recent decades to only a few hundred thousand birds. Since the mid-2000s, this has put pressure on decision-makers to protect sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act—a potentially devastating outcome for American ranchers, sportsmen, energy developers, and others.

The shared goal of preventing a wide swath of the West from immense regulatory burden incentivized a unique coalition to agree on durable conservation plans at the federal, state, and local level to protect and restore core sage grouse habitat. These are the plans that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird as threatened or endangered in September 2015—and these very same plans may be weakened if we don’t speak up now.

Balance Means You Can’t Please Everyone

Of course, lawsuits were filed in the wake of the USFWS decision: Some claimed that the federal plans do too much or too little—a reasonable indication that the federal plans actually did hit close to the mark of balance for conservation and multiple uses of public lands.

Despite this extraordinary collaborative achievement, some states remain dissatisfied, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has ordered a review of the federal conservation plans. A report was publically released this summer outlining key issues related to energy development, grazing management, and measures to conserve habitat around sage grouse breeding sites. That report highlighted opportunities to set a clear direction on implementing plans, a reasonable suggestion, but also noted that amendments to the plans may be necessary in the long term.

These plans were signed just two years ago and have barely been implemented. Now we’re already talking about changing them, and perhaps even undoing our success.

Unfortunately, the amendment process could take years, possibly delaying time-sensitive work and creating even greater uncertainty for sage grouse habitat and all the stakeholders that are anxiously eyeing the landscape that sustains their way of life. While many problems can be addressed by the Bureau of Land Management without major changes or disruption, the administration is immediately seeking amendments to the plans rather than exhausting other options first.

No land-use management plan—state or federal—is perfect, and these plans should be improved upon over time. In fact, some minor tweaks could be acceptable now, as long as they are science-based and don’t change the entire course for conservation. That’s tough to be sure of when we’re barely on our first steps and don’t have much data to make informed adjustments.

The threat here is that opening up the plans for amendments invites mischief. Major changes, driven by the short-term desires of a few politicians and special interests, could destabilize the long-term certainty that all stakeholders need. And of course, there is a lot on the line for hunters, sage grouse, and the 350 other species that depend on the sagebrush-steppe. This is why we’re more comfortable with the BLM first using all their existing administrative options to resolve any immediate concerns.

Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS
Let Sage Grouse Plans Work

One Oregon rancher coined the phrase “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” highlighting the fact that quality range management benefits plant diversity, wildlife, and livestock. The same holds true for the deer herd, as my cousin and I experienced this fall.

Fortunately, there is a public process around the review of the BLM’s conservation plans, but the comment period ends December 1. Sportsmen and women need to speak up to keep conservation moving forward. Delays or major changes would threaten all of the critters that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem, including many big game species that make this a special place for hunters.

Please take just a few minutes to urge Secretary Zinke not to pursue a total overhaul of widely supported conservation plans or make changes that aren’t supported by the science—send the message that the men and women closest to the landscape want to keep this historic collaboration moving forward and let these carefully crafted solutions work.

Take action now.

Jennifer Byerly

November 14, 2017

Atlantic States’ Vote on Management of Critical Forage Fish Opens Door for Better Study

Commission vote falls short of considering ecosystem-wide impacts in management of Atlantic menhaden but establishes new reference points for future decisions

BALTIMORE — Today, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted to continue its current management approach for Atlantic menhaden, the second-most heavily commercially fished species in the nation and a critically important food source for sportfish like striped bass. With this vote, menhaden will continue to be managed as a single species until menhaden-specific ecological reference points can be developed. The Commission further decided to allocate a 0.5% minimum for each state and set the coastwide total allowable catch at 216,000 metric tons for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Recreational anglers have strongly advocated for an ecosystem-based management approach that considers the menhaden’s role in the food chain and factors in predator/prey relationships when setting catch limits. Anglers, small businesses, environmentalists, and other stakeholders from all fifteen ASMFC-managed states submitted hundreds of comments and turned out for fifteen public hearings up and down the coast in support of Option E to advance a more aggressive timeline for an ecosystem-wide management approach, before the states ultimately decided to maintain current management practices.

“The recreational fishing and conservation community looks forward to working with the Commission to set and implement these new ecological reference points as quickly as possible,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership “We knew this would be a long-term process and we are ready to move forward with the best available science and are taking a long-term view. Moving to an ecosystem-based management of this important forage species is not only good for our fisheries, but also critical for our coastal economies, which get a substantial boost from reliable and sustainable recreational fishing opportunities.”

The importance of Atlantic menhaden, also known as pogey or bunker, is clear to recreational fishermen on the East Coast. As high-protein forage fish that striped bass, tuna, mackerel, sharks, drum, cobia, and tarpon depend on for food, the abundance of menhaden often determines the likelihood of a good day on the water. In addition, menhaden help filter water and improve marine habitats. By feeding on algae-causing plankton, an adult menhaden can filter 2.4 gallons of water per minute, providing a valuable service in a place like Chesapeake Bay, where nutrient runoff becomes concentrated.

Check the ASMFC’s website for the full meeting summary and latest menhaden stock assessments.

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