A bill before Congress would practically give the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting. HR 167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, proposes to allow the Forest Service to tap into federal disaster relief funds whenever its annual firefighting appropriation runs out of money. It’s not quite a blank check as the bill would limit the Forest Service to $2.9 billion in firefighting expenses per year, but that’s not much of a limit (yet), as the most it has ever spent was in 2006 when it spent $1.501 billion.
The Forest Service puts out fires by dumping money on them.
Having a blank check is nothing new for the Forest Service. In 1908, Congress literally gave the agency a blank check for fire suppression, promising to refund all fire suppression costs at the end of each year. As far as I know, this is the only time in history that a democratically elected legislature gave a bureaucracy a blank check to do anything: even in wartime, the Defense Department had to live within a budget.
Due to rising firefighting costs, Congress repealed the Forest Service’s blank check in about 1978, giving the agency a fixed amount each year and telling it to save money in the wet years to spend in the dry years. The agency actually reduced its costs for about a decade, but then two severe fire years in 1987 and 1988 led the Forest Service to borrow heavily from its reforestation fund. Congress eventually reimbursed this fund, and costs have been growing ever since.
In the 1970s, when firefighting costs were so out of control that Congress repealed the blank check, the agency spent about 10 to 20 percent of its national forest management funds on fire. Today, even though the agency’s budget has kept up with inflation, more than half goes for fire.
Yet there is some restraint on what the agency spends. In severe fire years, it has to borrow money from its other programs, putting a crimp in those activities. Congress eventually reimburses that money, but in the meantime fire managers are aware that their spending is having an impact on other agency projects.