Congress must act to protect forests from worsening fires
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Over the last decade, communities across America have experienced longer and more intense fire seasons, averaging a full 60 days longer than in the past. In some places, fire season now means practically the entire calendar year.  A variety of factors – a warming climate, lack of management, vegetation overgrowth, and development spreading into wildlands – are exacerbating our wildfire problems and driving up the cost of suppression. America’s fire crisis is threatening communities, damaging fish and wildlife habitat, degrading watersheds, and trashing the budgets of our federal land management agencies.

If Congress does nothing, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will continue to see fire suppression expenses consume larger and larger portions of their budgets. For the past several years, fires have devoured well over half the Forest Service’s budget and the costs continue to climb. These costs will grow further because the agencies do not have the resources for proactive forest restoration and other land management activities that could reduce future fire threats.

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Under current law, the USFS and BLM are expected to budget for the 10-year average in fire suppression costs. For the Forest Service alone, following this approach will require that $500 to $800 million be redirected away from forest restoration and land management towards fire suppression by the end of 2022. On top of that, the Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposes to reduce the funds available for forest restoration by another $170 million to increase fire suppression accounts—a pennywise, but pound foolish, decision.

These funds would otherwise help restore the 82 million acres of the National Forest System, which, according to the Chief of the Forest Service, are at high risk of uncharacteristic wildfire—that’s nearly 43 percent of the entire National Forest system. Failing to address the fire funding crisis will continue to cripple the Forest Service’s ability to restore these lands and increase the likelihood of more devastating fires.

Here’s the good news: there are bipartisan approaches to fixing this problem that have been introduced in Congress since 2013. Congress recently came close – yet again – to passing legislation that fixes the budget problem while providing targeted reforms to land management that can speed up restoration activities.

But here’s the bad news: 2018 is projected to be a bad drought year and if a compromise is not included in the March budget deal, progress is unlikely this year.

Our organizations and many other partners have come together to propose a modest path forward: Combine a real budget fix—one that addresses the growth of the 10-year average—with some common-sense management reforms that provide land managers with additional tools to restore our forests, while preserving the public’s right to be involved in decisions and hold government agencies accountable. 

Conservationists, hunters and anglers, the timber industry, private landowners, and state and county governments have rallied around these bipartisan reforms. Now, we need Congress to act. The health of the America’s forests and adjacent communities is on the line.

Bill Imbergamo is executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition. Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.