The Forest Service is going broke fighting fires

Several national forests throughout the West have been forced to close due to dry tinderbox conditions, impacting recreation- and tourism-related businesses that depend on access to public lands.

In Colorado, drought conditions forced land managers to restrict public access to 1.8 million-acre San Juan National Forest for the first time in its history. Opportunities for hikers and mountain bikers were further limited by hazardous air quality due to wildfire smoke.

{mosads}Nearly 28,000 fires have already burned over 2.2 million acres, threatening homes and prompting evacuations, and summer is only beginning. It is the time of the year that we’re reminded of the risks of catastrophic wildfire and the poor health of our federally-owned forests. That is why it is essential and timely that the 2018 farm bill includes strong forest management reforms.


The important, but modest, forest management and fire funding reforms passed earlier this year are simply not enough to improve the health and natural resiliency of national forests.

The $1.3 trillion “omnibus” appropriations bill was celebrated for “fixing” wildfire suppression spending and ending the practice of “fire borrowing” that requires the U.S. Forest Service to raid non-fire accounts whenever its fire suppression budget is exhausted. Congress also provided a $500 million increase to fight fires this year- above and beyond the 10-year average for wildfire suppression costs. 

Yet, the wildfire funding fix doesn’t even take effect until 2020. U.S. Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen told a U.S. Senate panel in May her agency faces a potential $300 million budget shortfall due to increasing wildfire suppression costs. This means the Forest Service may once again have to redirect funding that was originally intended for preventative forest health programs. 

Unsustainable firefighting costs are just a symptom of a larger problem: millions of acres of unmanaged, unhealthy and fire-prone forests. More action is needed to give the Forest Service the tools they need to better manage our forests by expediting and protecting collaborative forest management from activist litigation that delay meaningful, publicly supported projects.

Due to agency “analysis paralysis,” and the real and perceived threat of obstructive litigation, it can take the Forest Service up to four years, at a cost of over $1 million for the agency to complete a single Environmental Impact Statement for a forest project.

To their credit, the Forest Service is undertaking a rulemaking process to make decisions more quickly, with the goal of cutting its costs attributed to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by 40 percent by 2020. The agency is striving to change its culture before it becomes the “U.S. Fire Service,” but it needs help from Congress. 

There is a bipartisan consensus that the U.S. Forest Service needs to increase the pace and scale of forest management activities on federal lands, yet the agency is frequently stymied by red tape and litigation. The 2018 farm bill offers an important opportunity to give the Forest Service the policy tools and resources they need to expedite much-needed treatments on lands that are at immediate risk. 

The U.S. House approved its farm bill on June 21 with strong forestry provisions to promote active forest management on federal forests. It includes numerous provisions to expedite management of the National Forest System and reduce the amount of litigation that frequently stymies needed forest management projects. The House bill also provides NEPA efficiencies to expedite treatments on at-risk forest lands, both before and after a fire and reauthorizes the Collaborative Forest Landscape Act as well.  

The U.S. Senate farm bill currently lacks meaningful forestry reforms, though it has been improved incrementally through amendments, such as one that gives counties the ability to partner with federal land managers through Good Neighbor Authority agreements.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont) and other senators have offered several additional amendments to improve the effectiveness of the Senate’s farm bill to reduce red tape, limit frivolous lawsuits, and streamline post-fire restoration projects. As we face yet another damaging wildfire season, we should hope these efforts are successful.  

The farm bill could be the final opportunity this year to pass significant reforms that help reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire, insects, and disease on federally-owned forests. Improving the health of forests would benefit our rural economies, recreational opportunities, and habitat for wildlife, and potentially help avoid future closures of our national forests.

Molly Pitts is the Rocky Mountains director and Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots coalition that advocates for active management of America’s federally-owned forests. 

Tags Drought Forest Service Molly Pitts Nick Smith Steve Daines wildfires

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