Give Forest Service tools to address escalating wildfire costs

Wildfires on our nation’s federally owned forests are growing larger and more severe, and the federal government is paying more for fire suppression than ever before.  Wildfire costs are normally budgeted by taking the average costs of the previous 10 years.  Between 2004 and 2013, costs have exceeded this average seven times. Already the U.S. Forest Service has informed Congress it could spend over $1 billion fighting fires this year, requiring the agency to redirect or “borrow” as much as $200 million away from programs that help mitigate wildfires in the first place.  

The Obama administration and members of Congress from both parties have pledged to end the practice of fire borrowing. Some have embraced legislation that would treat wildfires as natural disasters, allowing the federal government to pay the expense of fighting the largest wildfires through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Others believe the government should reduce costs by proactively increasing the pace and scale of forest management activities, considering that between 60 to 80 million acres of federal forests are at risk and in need of treatment.  

{mosads}Both are correct.  And that’s why the House of Representatives approved the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (HR 2647) on a bipartisan vote in July.  The legislation gives the Forest Service policy and legal tools to make federal forests less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease.  It also ends the practice of fire borrowing by allowing the Forest Service or Department of Interior to request funds from FEMA within 30 days of all suppression funds being exhausted. 

The Resilient Federal Forests Act represents a balanced approach to improving forest health while reducing the costs of wildfire suppression.  Unfortunately, the Obama administration appears to be shifting its position, issuing a new report claiming that ending the practice of fire borrowing is not enough to meet the government’s insatiable need for suppression funding. Congressional leaders have advanced a solution that stops borrowing and expedites management; the administration is now insisting that only a “budget cap exception” will help the dire situation the Forest Service faces.   This new position appears to bait Republican budget writers who have predictably opposed the request. 

Many Republicans and Democrats share the goal of reforming federal forest management, not only to reduce the threat of wildfire but to create jobs and restore economic opportunity for Americans in rural forested communities.  Many have come to recognize the status quo is unacceptable and the problems are systemic. The Forest Service once averaged over $1 billion in revenues annually, but now spends two dollars for every dollar it produces.  Unacceptably long and cumbersome analysis required by activist litigation prevent the agency from reducing the costs of manage forests. 

The Senate should move forward and approve the House-approved Resilient Federal Forests Act, Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo.) National Forest Ecosystem Improvement Act, or some other meaningful solution that restores our federal forests, puts more Americans back to work in the woods and addresses fire borrowing.  If the federal government is serious about reducing wildfire suppression costs, it will end fire borrowing but also address obstructive litigation and reduce the time and cost necessary to prepare and implement forest projects.  Otherwise American taxpayers will continue to shoulder the costs of fighting larger and more severe wildfires. 

Smith represents Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities,  a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots coalition that advocates for active management of America’s federally owned forests.  For more information, visit

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