U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue renewed his call for Congress to fix the way the agency’s fire suppression efforts are funded through the U.S. Forest Service after fire costs for the year passed the $2 billion mark in September.
This year has been the most expensive on record as wildfires ravaged states in the west, Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies.
“Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent — or maybe even more — which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management,” Perdue said. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires. It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on. That’s wrong, and that’s no way to manage the Forest Service.”
Perdue said he would prefer that Congress treat major fires the same as other disasters and be covered by emergency funds. Currently, the fire suppression portion of the Forest Service budget is funded at a rolling 10-year average of appropriations. Because fire seasons have become longer and conditions worse, the fire suppression budget keeps rising while the overall Forest Service budget remains relatively flat. The agency has had to borrow from prevention programs to cover rising fire costs.
This fiscal year, Congress appropriated additional funding above the 10-year average — almost $1.6 billion — to support firefighting efforts, but even that amount has not been enough. In mid-September, with three weeks to go in the fiscal year, the agency had already had to borrow from other programs within its budget, according to the USDA press office.
At the peak of the western fire season this summer, there were three times as many uncontained large fires on the landscape as compared to the five-year average, and almost three times as many personnel assigned to fires with more than 27,000 people supporting firefighting activities, including firefighters from Wisconsin and other Midwest states. As of Sept. 14, the Forest Service had been at its highest preparedness level for 35 days, during which approximately 2.2 million acres of National Forest lands had burned.
Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke said the fire season is breaking records in terms of dollars spent and National Forest land burned. The men and women fighting those fires should be given every opportunity to do their jobs effectively through better management of the forests in the first place, he said.
Some National Forest management in Wisconsin comes in part from Good Neighbor Authority, which is a contract between the Forest Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for DNR to perform watershed restoration and forest management services in national forests when similar or complimentary services are done on adjacent land.
In Wisconsin, Good Neighbor Authority extends into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.