Senate questions Forest Service funding increases for fire suppression, logging, and roadbuilding

Dan Berman, E&E Daily senior reporter

A major concern of appropriators on both sides of Capitol Hill this spring has been wildland fire management, which is taking up a larger and larger percentage of the Forest Service's budget. Last year, the federal government spent nearly $2 billion fighting wildfires that burned over 9.9 million acres of land nationwide.

The budget request includes a dramatic $170 million increase for wildland firefighting to $911 million, based on the 10-year average for firefighting costs. Using a new approach, the Forest Service hopes to reduce costs by fighting fires on a priority basis, taking into account private property, infrastructure and human lives.

Firefighting efforts could benefit in the Iraq supplemental bill as well. The bill includes $500 million to establish a reserve account dedicated to emergency wildland firefighting. The money would be available to Interior and the Forest Service if the agencies spend the funds already allocated for fiscal 2007 and work to cut costs.

The administration's budget request proposes cutting nearly $90 million for wildfire preparedness and $35 million for recreation and trails. In addition, $77 million in fixed cost increases were not included in the overall budget request. Further cutting costs, USFS aims to reduce the size of the Washington office and nine regional offices 25 percent by the end of fiscal 2009 and will consolidate many headquarters and regional activities to save money.

"We know prospective operating budgets will continue to be 'flat' or reduced, creating erosion in buying power that affects our ability to accomplish our work," former USFS Chief Dale Bosworth wrote in a Jan. 21 memo. "And while funding declines, our fixed costs are rising. These factors make it critical to increase our efficiency and make organizational changes, even in the face of potential impacts to our workforce."

Last month, a coalition including the Western Governors' Association, Wilderness Society, International Association of Fire Chiefs and National Association of Counties asked appropriators to restore proposed cuts to state fire assistance programs.

The administration proposes a 14 percent cut in fiscal 2008, but the National Association of State Foresters says they need $145 million to assist current and emerging community wildfire preparedness and protection needs.
The program assists states in developing preparedness and response capabilities for wildfires. About 165,000 firefighters have been trained through the program since 2002. State foresters estimate that SFA funding needs to increase nearly 85 percent to $145 million to meet the current and emerging community needs for wildland fire preparedness and protection.

One area that would see budget increases is the timber sales program, which would receive about $405 million in fiscal 2008, enough to sell 3.5 billion board feet of timber. An additional $105 million would be spent on timber-related road construction and reconstruction. Part of the timber budget includes a plan to allow the harvest of up to 800 million board feet under the Northwest Forest Plan.