As residents of the region know well, huge shards in the American West are federally owned. Nearly 60 percent of the forests in California, 25 percent of the forests in Oregon and 44 percent in Washington are national forests. For the most part, the forests that are burning all over the West – the fires that the president blames on statesmen – are on federal lands.
Managing forest fires is a complex issue, but one thing is clear: The federal commitment to it has been declining for years, and Trump has not done much to turn it around. Federal government spending on fire prevention has fallen; the budget for vegetation management fell from approx. $ 240 million in 2001
It is not because the need has fallen. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, of the 10 years recorded with the largest area burned, nine have occurred since 2000, including the peak year in 2015. With the increase in the number and intensity of forest fires, the cost of combating them has grown significantly. A 2015 report from the Forest Service points out that “as more and more of the Agency’s resources are used each year to supply firefighters, aircraft and other assets needed to protect life, property and natural resources from catastrophic forest fires, fewer and fewer funds and resources available to support other agency work – including the actual programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat. ”
The problem is, in part, that until recently, the forest service had no way of increasing its funding this year of bad fires, so unexpected firefighting costs had to come from funds originally earmarked for other priorities, such as land management. The same report noted that in 1995, firefighting accounted for 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget; in 2020, firefighting accounted for the first time for a majority of the forest service’s annual budget.
Along with this shift in resources, there has also been a similar shift in staff with a 39 percent reduction in all staff other than firefighters. As a result, the agency was forced to divert dollars and staff focused on measures that could reduce the risk of fires by improving forest health. The more money spent on fighting fires, the less was available to prevent them – clearly a “robbed Peter to pay Paul” scenario. If this issue went unchecked, the Forest Service would devote more than two-thirds of its 2025 fire-fighting budget.
In recognition of the problem, the Obama administration went to Congress to correct it. The question was simple – stop forcing the forest service to pay for firefighting with the money earmarked for forest management and other programs designed to protect fish and wildlife, provide outdoor life and manage land and wilderness areas – all part of the agency’s legislative mission – and instead treat these extreme fire incidents as the disasters they are and pay for them out of disaster relief funds.
After years of debate, Congress finally reached a compromise in 2018 to facilitate this zero-sum method by allowing the forest service to use disaster assistance when firefighting costs exceeded the forest service’s annual firefighting budget. They called it the “fire rescue”.
It was very important to solve the funding problem for firefighting. But the long delay in reaching this compromise meant that fire prevention efforts were delayed for years, making it possible to build refractory vegetation that will feed future fires, which is likely to contribute to the fires sweeping through California. and the northwestern Pacific today. Why the delays? Because some Republican members of the House and Senate refused to address the funding issues unless measures were included to limit environmental reviews and legal challenges to future timber sales and insisted on increasing funding for future national timber sales.
But firefighting addresses only part of the problem – there is also a serious capacity problem to solve. According to the U.S. Forest Service in California, returning to California’s national forests to a state that reduces future extreme fire risk will require treatment of 6 to 9 million acres per year. The agency currently handles a small fraction of it – about 200,000 hectares a year. The agency was to increase the number of restored acres to approximately 500,000 acres per year at a cost of at least $ 300 million per year to make significant progress in reducing future fire risk. And it’s only in California.
At the same time, the Trump administration has sent mixed signals to Forest Service management about what the agency’s management priorities should be. It seems that reducing fuel loads that contribute to fire risk and improving forest health should be a top priority. But political leadership in the Department of Agriculture has reintroduced wood targets as a performance measure for Forest Service leaders in addition to improving forest health. In other words, as anxiety rises over fire risk across federal states, national forest managers are rewarded for shifting attention and dollars away from the goal of smart maintenance. Meeting wood production targets has little to do with improving the health and resilience of national forest areas. However, it is an easy measurement to assess the performance of forest managers as well as a way to satisfy the timber industry.
Managing wilderness herring is a collaborative effort that requires a coordinated approach. Efforts to politicize wildfires by questioning the link to climate change – despite established science – and to blame or assign responsibility for catastrophic fire based on party affiliation (ie somehow it is only a problem for states with democratic governors) or short-circuiting required project reviews in terms of health, safety or environmental impacts are, to put it mildly, counterproductive.
As the president engages in biased shift about a crisis happening on his own watch, there is a positive example to draw on, and it is far from Washington. Firefighting itself, a responsibility shared by the federal government, states, local officials and tribal government, is a model for cooperation. The Wildland Fire Department and the non-partisan way it works is a model for how the government should work to prevent the problem of forest fires in the first place – not by pointing fingers, discussing their cause or taking responsibility, but by working together to improve the health and resilience of our nations’ forests and the well-being of the people it serves.