In the West, an unkind budget cut for overgrown forests

Lack of funding makes strange bedfellows in U.S. Congress

State Sen. Ellen Roberts talks to people who lost their homes in the Lower North Fork Fire near Conifer in 2012. Political efforts to address the country’s growing wildfire problem have been stunted by a lack of money in governmental budgets. Enlarge photo

JOE HANEL/Durango Herald file

State Sen. Ellen Roberts talks to people who lost their homes in the Lower North Fork Fire near Conifer in 2012. Political efforts to address the country’s growing wildfire problem have been stunted by a lack of money in governmental budgets.

Even as massive wildfires are teaching the Western United States just how dangerous an overgrown forest can be, the Obama administration has proposed steep cuts to the budget for removing hazardous fuels.

The move has infuriated Western senators and pulled off a near impossible trick in Washington – uniting Democrats and Republicans.

“Most people in the West are saying, ‘They cut what?’” said Lynn Jungwirth, a senior fellow at the Watershed Center in California.

Jungwirth testified against the cuts before the U.S. Senate in June.

Congress, meanwhile, is mired in its own partisan fights about what to do about overgrown forests and, more importantly, how to pay for the answers.

Without adequate money in the Forest Service’s hazardous-fuels budget, the rural communities that put together wildfire-protection plans during the last decade – at the federal government’s urging – won’t have enough money to put the plans into practice, Jungwirth said.

The Forest Service has been under financial pressure from two sides. While its overall budget is being reduced, the price it pays for firefighting is increasing rapidly. Each dollar spent on firefighting leaves less for campgrounds, scientific research or clearing brush and little trees.

On Aug. 21, The Associated Press reported the Forest Service is transferring $600 million into firefighting from its budgets for timber, recreation and other programs, after already spending $967 million on firefighting this year.

In June, four senators, including Colorado Democrat Mark Udall, sent an indignant letter to the Office of Management and Budget, which is the White House’s budget office, to complain about the squeeze that firefighting puts on the Forest Service budget.

“Just ten years ago, fighting fires accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget; last year it was over 40 percent,” the letter says.

Udall has not heard back from the Office of Management and Budget.

“It’s much less expensive to prevent a fire than it is to fight a fire,” Udall said in an interview. “It’s common sense. Common sense doesn’t always hold fast in Washington.”

So far, the federal government has not found a way out of the fire trap – the cycle of aggressive fire suppression that allows a buildup of fuels in the forest that cause increasingly large fires.

“Everybody knows today that fire suppression cannot be what you rely on to deal with this,” Jungwirth said.

Pressure from both sides

However, some of the same senators, including Udall, who want fire-prevention money also are pressuring the Forest Service to obtain more heavy slurry bombers – one of the most expensive ways to fight fires.

The Office of Management and Budget has to deal with restricted budgets and had to make a choice, said Chris Topik, director of Restoring America’s Forests for the Nature Conservancy.

“I think they sensed there was more pressure to keep funding fire suppression,” said Topik, who has testified to Congress twice this year about the benefits of thinning overgrown forests.

An Obama administration official said as much in an email to the Herald.

“While the FY 14 Budget calls for increasing overall funding for wildfires, deep cuts to discretionary funding are always going to force difficult decisions. As a result, this budget focuses resources on the most critical firefighting needs and on activities to reduce risk in places closest to where families live and work,” said the official, who requested anonymity, as is the White House custom.

The squeeze on the Forest Service has been a bipartisan affair. Budgets started to fall under President George W. Bush. At the same time, Congress has been erratic about funding wildfire fighting, sometimes forcing the Forest Service to cut its other accounts in order to pay for fire suppression.

The lack of money makes it all the more important for the federal government to cooperate with the state of Colorado on clearing dangerous fuels before a fire starts, said state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango.

Roberts sits on a new wildfire committee the Legislature created this year, under the assumption that fires would remain a problem for at least 20 years. She is pushing for more commercial logging and forest health projects, even in the backcountry.

“We’re seeing clearly the consequences of having a hands-off approach,” Roberts said, pointing to this year’s West Fork Complex fires.

Agreement in Congress

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is divided about what to do about the nation’s forests, with Republicans pushing for a revival of logging on public lands.

Late this summer, the House plans to vote on a bill by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, that would make it easier to jump regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of increased logging.

“As timber harvesting on public lands declined, the acreage burned by wildfires has increased just as steadily,” Tipton said at a hearing in July on his bill.

Democrats at the hearing predicted that it would never pass the Senate.

The appropriations committees in the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate have very different ideas about how to budget for the country’s public lands and environmental agencies. The Republican plan would spend $6.5 billion less than the Democratic plan, and its cuts would “decimate” important programs such as Forest Service research, Topik said.

But Topik senses partisan agreement on the benefits of thinning forests. Even the Republicans’ austere budget provides an increase for hazardous-fuels treatment.

Neither chamber has passed a budget, and Congress isn’t likely to do so this year. Instead, observers expect Congress to pay for the government by continuing this year’s funding levels.

Topik is optimistic that, even if Congress can’t pass a national budget, the House and Senate will brush off the White House budget and agree to pay more for treating hazardous fuels. Members of both parties understand the need, he said.

“The evidence is so clear that this stuff does work,” Topik said. “We’re not going to stop wildfires. But by doing this forest-restoration work, we can definitely reduce the intensity.”

jhanel@durangoherald.com

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story