This year is on track to have one of the most destructive wildfire seasons on record. Over 8.8 million acres burned by mid-September, nearing the number of acres burned during the same timeframe in 2006, which had one of the worst wildfire seasons on record.
Fighting wildfires is expensive; the U.S. Forest Service alone spent over $1.1 billion on fire suppression in 2014. The federal land management agencies expect to spend a certain percentage of their annual budgets on firefighting, but that percentage continues to increase as wildfire seasons grow longer.
Due to the effects of climate change, fire seasons are on average 78 days longer than they were in the ‘70s. In 2015, the Forest Service expects to spend 52 percent of its budget on fire suppression. In comparison, 16 percent of the budget went to fire suppression in 1995. A new report estimates that nearly 70 percent of the Forest Service’s budget will be devoted to fire suppression by 2025, meaning the issue will only compound.
The current funding mechanism for fighting wildfires forces land management agencies to divert funds that otherwise would support routine maintenance and improvement projects. When more than half of the Forest Service’s budget is spent on wildfire suppression, less than half is available for maintaining habitats and the trails, roads, and bridges that make our national forests environmentally healthy and accessible to the public. Not to mention, funding is also diverted from prescribed burns, forest thinning and other projects that reduce wildfire risk.
The solution to this problem is to make federal disaster funding available for wildfire suppression. Congress included $700 million in the Continuing Resolution to repay the Forest Service for funds that were transferred to firefighting, but the system of repaying the land management agencies on an annual basis is inefficient. Congress can fix this by passing the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA): a bi-partisan proposal that would fund wildfire suppression in a similar manner to how the government currently funds the response to hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters.
Passage of the WDFA is now more important than ever as Congress recently failed to act on bipartisan legislation that would reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Since its creation in 1965, LWCF has protected national parks and forests with the royalties from oil and gas drilling, not taxpayer dollars. LWCF helps reduce wildfire fighting costs by protecting water supplies from development and allowing firefighters to manage fire efficiently across public lands.
Further, with the passage of WDFA more of the Forest Service’s budget would be available for routine maintenance and programs like the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC): an initiative that engages youth and returning veterans in public lands maintenance projects, including forest thinning and other activities that mitigate the impact of future wildfires. Utilizing the 21CSC would also help provide job training to America’s next generation of land managers.
America’s parks and public lands provide precious natural resources, but Congress is not doing its part to protect and defend our heritage. Congress needs to act now to ensure that the U.S. Forest Service has the funding it needs to fight wildfire and that we are able to continue to maintain and protect our natural resources by reauthorizing and fully funding LWCF.
Sprenkel is CEO of The Corps Network.