Forest Service Report: Rising Firefighting Costs Raises Alarms

For the first time in its 110-year history, the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is spending more than 50 percent of its budget to suppress the nation’s wildfires. A new report released today by the Forest Service estimates that within a decade, the agency will spend more than two-thirds of its budget to battle ever-increasing fires, while mission-critical programs that can help prevent fires in the first place such as forest restoration and watershed and landscape management will continue to suffer. Meanwhile, the report notes, these catastrophic blazes are projected to burn twice as many acres by 2050.

As the costs of fighting wildfires grow each year with longer, hotter, more unpredictable fire seasons, the report details how the Forest Service has experienced significant shifts in staffing and resources. In effect, the Forest Service has nearly half a billion dollars less, in 2015 dollars, than it did in 1995 to handle non-fire related programs—the bulk of its programming. There has also been a 39 percent loss of non-fire personnel, from approximately 18,000 in 1998 to fewer than 11,000 in 2015, while the fire staff has more than doubled. Dedicated to its mission of protecting more than 190 million acres of federal forests and grasslands, as well as lives and personal property from the growing threats of catastrophic wildfire, the Forest Service in recent years has absorbed skyrocketing costs related to fire and relied increasingly on “fire transfer”—moving resources from non-fire accounts to cover firefighting costs.

“Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “but the way we fund our Forest Service hasn’t changed in generations. Meanwhile, everything else suffers, from the very restoration projects that have been proven to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the future, to watershed projects that protect drinking water for 1 in 5 Americans, to recreation projects that support thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity. The time has come for Congress to change the way it funds the Forest Service.”

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