Forest Service Reports on Budget Impacts of Firefighting

Authors: Michelle Medley-Daniel

Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack recently unveiled a US Forest Service report on the impacts of rising firefighting costs on the budgets of other National Forest programs. According to a press release from the USDA Office of Communications, “The Forest Service’s firefighting appropriation has rapidly risen as a proportion of the Forest Service’s overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today, forcing cuts in other budget areas.”

As FAC practitioners many of us have experienced the disruption that “fire borrowing” can have on our work with Forest Service partners. While this dynamic doesn’t come as a surprise, how much firefighting costs have shifted Forest Service program budgets over time did surprise me. According to Secretary Vilsack, “In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combating fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago. This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies.”

LMP program declining budget

Chart taken from: http://www.fs.fed.us/sites/default/files/media/2014/34/nr-firecostimpact-082014.pdf

Many fire adapted communities rely on strong partnerships with federal land managers to realize our goals. We know that communities exist within landscape contexts and a broad vision for how we adapt both local cultures, and local landscape management are critical to our FAC strategies. With major reductions to several of the Forest Services programs, including a 22% cut to the Vegetation and Watershed Management Program since 2001; declining Research funding; and a 63% cut to Land Management Planning, fire adapted communities have to reach even further to bridge the gap.

We know that mitigation funding is a smart investment. Dollar for dollar we get so much more value by acting vs. reacting, but making a shift in the way we allocate and spend funding won’t be easy. According to the press release, the Obama Administration’s proposed budget includes the requested change to “the way catastrophic fire costs are funded…The change means that in years when the cost of fighting wildfires exceeds the firefighting budget provided to the Forest Service by Congress, additional resources would be provided from an existing fund already in place to help provide emergency funding for natural disasters, rather than forcing the Forest Service to take money from other programs designed to protect forest health.”

In the meantime, fire adapted communities can help demonstrate strategies for living more safely with fire. To read the Forest Service’s full report, visit: http://www.fs.fed.us/sites/default/files/media/2014/34/nr-firecostimpact-082014.pdf

How have your FAC partners dealt with challenging funding dynamics? Share ideas for being proactive in the comments below.

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