Tag: Forest Service

Vilsack to Congress: Give Me More Money or I’ll Let the West Burn

Congress rejected the Forest Service plan to give the agency access to up to $2.9 billion a year to suppress wildfires. In response, Secretary of Agriculture threatened to let fires burn up the West unless Congress gives his department more money. In a letter to key members of Congress, Vilsack warned, “I will not authorize transfers from restoration and resilience funding” to suppress fires. If the Forest Service runs out of appropriated funds to fight fires, it will stop fighting them until Congress appropriates additional funds.

This is a stunning example of brinksmanship on the part of an agency once known for its easygoing nature. Since about 1990, Congress has given the Forest Service the average of its previous ten years of fire suppression funds. If the agency has to spend more than that amount during a severe fire year, Congress authorized it to borrow funds from its other programs, with the promise that Congress would reimburse those funds later. In other words, during severe fire years, some projects might be delayed for a year–hardly a crisis.

Yet Vilsack and the Forest Service are intent on turning it into a crisis. In a report prominently posted on the Forest Service’s web site, the agency whines about “the rising costs of wildfire operations”–that cost not being the dollar cost but the “effects on the Forest Service’s non-fire work.”

Dumping Money on Fire

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.

Budgets on Fire

It’s fire season again, which means we are once again treated to stories about how the Forest Service is running out of money and about how it all must be due to climate change. Both of these claims overlook fundamental points about fire policy and firefighting.

As of August 16, the BLM had spent $2.2 million controlling the 88,000-acre Cornet Fire on the Vale District in Oregon. The Forest Service has spent two-and-one-half times that much on a fire that was just 515 acres in size. BLM photo.

The Forest Service frets that rapidly rising firefighting costs are hurting the budgets of other Forest Service programs. However, as I’ve pointed out before, Forest Service firefighting costs have risen rapidly mainly because they can: the agency has a virtual blank check to spend on fire. As a result, the agency spends far more fighting fires than Department of the Interior agencies, which have never had a blank check.

For example, as of yesterday, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had spent $1.6 million controlling the 55,000-acre County Line 2 fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, while the Bureau of Land Management had spent $2.5 million controlling the 44,000-acre Bendire fire on its Vale District. Meanwhile, the Forest Service had spent $5.5 million on the 515-acre Baldy Fire on the Colville National Forest; $5.9 million on the 4,800-acre National Creek fire on the Rogue River National Forest; and $7.1 million on the 2,600-acre Phillips Creek fire on the Umatilla National Forest. These are selected examples, but on average, the Forest Service spends more than five times as much per acre than the Interior agencies.

Putting Out Fires by Throwing Money on Them

Now that forest fires are in the news, someone noticed that President Obama has proposed a new way of funding wild firefighting. Instead of borrowing from its fuels treatment funds when the Forest Service exhausts its regular fire-fighting budget, Obama wants to let the agency draw upon a new “special disaster account” that is “adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.”

Treating excessive firefighting costs by giving the Forest Service more money makes as much sense as attempting to suppress forest fires by throwing gasoline on them. In case you don’t hear the sarcasm, it makes no sense at all.

Obama is focusing on the wrong problem, the drawdown of funds intended for fuel treatments. The real problem is the incentives the Forest Service has to spend wildly on firefighting.

As far as I know, no democracy has given any government agency a blank check to accomplish any goal–except the Forest Service for fighting fires. Even the Pentagon was given budgets for fighting World War II, the Cold War, and other wars. But in 1908, Congress gave the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting, saying the agency could spend as much as it needed to suppress fires, and Congress would reimburse it later.

Fire! Fire! Fire!

fireIt’s summer again, which means it is the time of year for the obligatory photos of wildfires in Southern California. This particular fire, known as the Station Fire, nearly doubled in size in the last 24 hours from 98 to 164 square miles. So far, it has burned at least 18 buildings and cost the lives of at least two firefighters.

The fire began in the Angeles National Forest, and Congress will no doubt respond by giving the Forest Service even more money to suppress such fires in the future. In fact, as I show in my Cato Policy Analysis, The Perfect Firestorm, the Forest Service has, in effect, a blank check to put out fires.

It freely uses that blank check. It has so far spent about $14 million fighting the Station Fire, which supposedly threatens 12,000 homes. But it has also spent $2.5 million on Oregon’s Canal Creek Fire, which is less than half a square mile in size and does not threaten any homes or other structures. Better safe than sorry — as long as you have a blank check.

Southern California forests are extremely fire prone — their natural fire regime is to completely burn over every 50 to 100 years. Building homes in such an area might seem foolish, so naturally there have been calls for “fire plain zoning,” similar to flood plain zoning, that would restrict such construction.

FlintridgeIn fact, properly designed homes and landscaping can easily withstand such fires. Most homes destroyed by wildfires are ignited either by burning embers landing on flammable roofs or by the radiant heat from trees or   grasses burning nearby.  Building homes with nonflammable roofs and eves, and landscaping with well-tended lawns and a minimum of flammable trees essentially makes homes fireproof.

Most civilian deaths from wildfire take place during evacuations, not from the fire itself. Homes that are designed to withstand wildfires are known as “shelter-in-place” homes because the residents will be safer in the homes than trying to evacuate.

In 2007, CBS News reported that a fire swept through two San Diego suburbs built to shelter-in-place standards, and “not one home was even touched by flames.” Perversely, the reporter concluded that people should not be allowed to build to those standards because it would just encourage them to live in fire-prone areas.

In reality, the lesson is that it would be a lot less expensive to promote shelter-in-place construction standards and retrofitting and then simply let the fires burn at their normal frequencies. The homes would be safe, the forests would be “natural,” and fewer firefighters would be at risk.

Why doesn’t this happen?

Simple: money. The Forest Service gets a blank check for putting out fires, but almost no money for helping people fireproof their properties. So it continues to spend billions on fire suppression, mainly to protect people’s homes, when a lower-cost strategy is readily available.

Photo credit: MB Trama and DisneyKrazie on Flickr.