Fire costs will again thin other budgets

by Keith Chu
The Bulletin, (Bend, OR)

WASHINGTON - After another fire season that exceeded U.S. Forest Service expectations, agency Chief Gail Kimbell said firefighting costs will continue to burn up money for recreation and forest health funding into next year's budget.

Kimbell said the Forest Service spent $100 million more than it budgeted for firefighting in the 2007 fiscal year. She told the U.S. House Committee on Global Warming on Thursday that she already has begun pulling money from nonfire programs to pay for an even larger firefighting budget in the 2009 fiscal year.

Kimbell's announcement likely means a continuation of cuts to recreation budgets in Central Oregon and points to the need for more forest thinning to prevent catastrophic and expensive fires, according to House members and local trail advocates.

Congressmen at the hearing said the agency cannot continue to cut other functions to feed the growing maw of fire costs.

"You're already cannibalizing the budget," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland. "You have to thin all of your activities (because of) this exploding cost."

Kimbell said the Forest Service spent $1.34 billion fighting fires in the
2007 fiscal year and exceeded its budget, even after Congress set aside $375 million in emergency wildfire funding.

Wildfires consumed nearly 600,000 acres of forests and grassland in Oregon this year, ranking it sixth among states. The G.W. Fire northwest of Sisters burned 7,500 acres, while the Egley Complex of fires near Burns burned 140,000 acres.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, said changes in forest policy are the only way to stop ever-higher fire spending.

"We had half-a-million acres burn in my state this year; this is getting out of control," said Walden, who represents Eastern, Central and parts of Southern Oregon.

Walden advocated increased salvage logging after forest fires to improve forest health and because young trees absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which dead trees do not.

"If you replant sooner, you're going to produce forests sooner, and you're going to sequester carbon sooner," he said.

Scott Silver, of the Bend-based conservation group Wild Wilderness, said he's not sure what the Forest Service should do to attack the increasing fire activity. But he knows throwing money at the problem isn't the answer.

"Fire suppression could use every dollar people want to spend on it," Silver said. "The question may be, is it appropriate to declare war on fire and fight it as if it were a war, or is it more appropriate to rethink our policy?"

When the fire budget is exhausted, the Forest Service initiates "fire transfers" - loans from other programs to pay for firefighting costs.

Congress is supposed to reimburse local districts for those transfers, but historically has repaid only about 80 percent of transfers, according to a
2004 Government Accountability Office study.

In the 2007 fiscal year, the Forest Service pulled $731,000 from Deschutes National Forest programs and $32,600 from the Ochoco National Forest. In the Ochoco, most of that money came from recreation programs, while in the Deschutes, it was pulled from a variety of programs, including watershed enhancement, air resources and fire preparedness, the Deschutes National Forest reported.

Volunteers who have already taken responsibility to maintain hundreds of miles of trails are leery of even deeper cuts to recreation budgets, said Kent Howes, president of the Bend-based Central Oregon Trails Alliance.

"To us, they already told us they have no money, so how much less is that?"
Howes said. "I'm sure there will be a few more trailheads closed somewhere, a few more privies that get locked up and don't get pumped out and that hurts everybody out here."

The outlook doesn't look any better in 2009, Kimbell said.

"In preparing the fiscal year 2009 budget, I've (had to) find $300 million from other projects to move into fire suppression," Kimbell said, in response to a question from Walden.

Locally, that funding shortfall has left volunteer groups like the Central Oregon Trails Alliance to fill the gap. So far this year, the group has spent 2,500 hours maintaining local trails, up from 1,700 hours last year, Howes said.

"If we don't do something about it, they're just going to get closed or not maintained," Howes said. "They're going to go away, and no one wants that."