Are Wildfires Spreading the US Forest Service Too Thin?

Feb 12, 2016 | Environment & Energy

Budgetary and resource concerns rise amid record-breaking wildfire season

Wildfire occurrences and vastness in the United States are on the rise, and with these trends, there are mounting concerns that the U.S. Forest (USFS) and National Park Services (NPS) are being pushed to their limits. Several policy solutions have been proposed to accommodate the growing financial needs of the USFS and NPS, but none have successfully passed through Congress.

Shifting resources amidst funding woes

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) along with the National Park Service (NPS) jointly address the nation’s wildfires through special task forces and prevention programs. Additionally, the USFS and NPS are responsible for maintaining federal lands through sustainability, education, and prevention. Wildfire seasons have been growing drastically over the past 50 years, and many question whether these services are being spread too thin.

Originally, the USFS and NPS focused on improving our nation’s parks through various programs such as reestablishing damaged ecosystems, promoting sustainability, preventing and fighting forest fires, and maintaining recreation and wildlife visitor facilities. USFS has continued to strive for these goals, but due to an increase in wildfires, the need for wildfire suppression programs is outgrowing the Forest Service’s capacity and overshadowing other important programs that impact the national parks. Because the USFS has a dominant role in the fighting and prevention of wildfires, it receives a large amount of appropriated funds from Congress. Funding has increased annually; however, sequestration and the increased need for resources to fight wildfires have put a major strain on the services and other programs under their jurisdiction. The future of the USFS is clearly on an unsustainable path if no policy solutions are seriously pursued. First, more funding is needed to address the increase in wildfire occurrences. Additionally, it would be in the best interest of the USFS to consider restructuring to ensure all programs are treated as a priority moving forward.

Drier and warmer: Global warming and wildfires 

Wildfires have been a growing environmental issue for the western United States over the past 30 years. Since the 1980s, wildfire occurrences have increased by an average of 7 each year. 2015 was the most active wildfire season to date with more than 8.8 million acres affected.

Spikes in U.S. wildfires.
Source: World Resources Institute

Not only have the instances of wildfires increased, but the wildfire season has also extended from 5 months in 1970 to 7 months in 2015. Both the increase in incidences and duration of wildfires has been directly linked to drier conditions, a result of global warming. With surface temperatures consistently increasing annually, forests are drier longer than previously, and conditions are primed for fires to spread. The graph below from NASA’s Earth Observatory illustrates this surface temperature trend:

global mean surface temperature
Source: Earth Observatory, NASA

Ninety percent of wildfires are induced by people and can turn into fast-moving disasters with dry conditions. NPS and USFS both offer several means of wildfire prevention that include tree thinning, watershed restoration and fuel removal to avoid adding fuel to the fire. To compensate for the increase in fire incidences, the USFS and NPS have resorted to using funds in their budget allocated for other prevention and beautification programs such as watershed restoration, tree thinning or recreation projects to fund fighting unexpected fire disasters. This is problematic because taking funds from fire prevention programs only increases the magnitude of wildfires.

Sustaining USFS: Policy options

For both the USFS and the NPS, fund transfers between programs are allowed to cover additional costs that arise within the year. This occurs on a regular basis due to the increasing occurrences of wildfires and the unanticipated amount of funding needed to address them. Every time a fund transfer occurs to cover fire costs, it impacts other programs. During a 2013 Congressional hearing, Thomas Tidwell, USFS Chief, stated, “Each time the agency transfers money out of accounts to pay for fire suppression there are significant and lasting impacts across the entire Forest Service. Not only do these impacts affect the ability of the Forest Service to conduct stewardship work on national forests, but they also affect our partners, local governments and Tribes.”

It was suggested that a separate fund be created to address the funds transfer issue. A new wildfire fund would operate like the Natural Disaster Relief. Additional funding would be set aside for years where wildfires are a major issue that creates a financial burden on the services. For several years, legislation that would create a Wildfire Disaster Fund has been introduced and then expired before enactment. H.R.167 and S.235 have been introduced in both the House and Senate in 2015, but have yet to be considered. These bills would create the necessary backup funding the USFS needs to accommodate the increase in incidences.

Finally, due to the rise in wildfires, the original purpose of the USFS has shifted to largely the nation’s wildfire prevention service. Although the services still make major improvements to national lands, it is evident that the USFS and NPS are spread very thin. Year after year, the USFS transfers other program funding to cover the growing costs wildfire prevention has inherited.

In June 2015, the USFS released their five-year strategic plan, highlighting their ongoing commitment to “sustaining our nation’s forests and grasslands, delivering benefits to the public, applying knowledge globally, and excelling as a high-performing agency.” This strategic plan fails to address the major problems at stake. In 2013, Tidwell described the major obstacle for the USFS: “…how we adapt our management to anticipate climate change impacts and begin to mitigate their potential effects. We must discuss and find ways to fund programs while minimizing the effect on all Forest Service operations.” In order to reestablish USFS’s robustness and maintain wildfire prevention, more appropriations are needed. Additionally, establishing a separate entity outside of the USFS that directly and exclusively addresses wildfires would alleviate the financial and program priority concerns that are evident today.

Image Source: How Stuff Works, Science.