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.”

Numerous graphs in the report show declines in inflation-adjusted funding for various line items–but, deceptively, none of the graphs have the Y-axis set to zero, thus exaggerating those declines. Moreover, many of those line items are ridiculous anyway: who cares of land-management planning budgets have declined? The Supreme Court decided in 1998 that land-management planning was a waste of time, so why are they still spending any money at all on it? In any case, most of the items tracked by the charts aren’t programs the Forest Service borrows against for fire, so creating the proposed $2.9 billion emergency fund would do nothing to stop the funding declines.

The question Vilsack should ask is not “Why won’t Congress give his agency a blank check?” but “Why does the Forest Service spend so much on fire anyway?” The answer to that question is complex but comes down to one simple thing: the Forest Service has no incentive to control costs as long as Congress keeps reimbursing them.

As wildfire historian Stephen Pyne wrote in 1995, Forest Service fire managers have long been known for “creative accounting,” transferring “as many costs as possible” to the emergency fire funds. One of these is the “presuppression fund” that becomes available when fire danger is high; the other is the suppression fund that becomes available when a fire isn’t controlled by the first responders. When either of these conditions takes place, Pyne notes, “everything imaginable is charged to fires.” This situation has only gotten worse in the last two decades.

So it’s not surprising that many Forest-Service-fed news articles have reported that 2015 was the costliest fire year ever, citing Forest Service costs of $1.7 billion. But none of the articles mention costs to the Department of the Interior, and while I can’t find that number anywhere, I suspect it was not a lot more than half a billion dollars, as the most it has ever spent in the past was around $470 million.

The reason why this is important is that most fires this year were on Interior lands, not national forests. The Forest Service and its parent, the Department of Agriculture point to the near-record number of acres burned in 2015, about 9.8 million. But less than 20 percent of those acres were on national forest lands, while 54 percent were on Interior lands. 

Firefighting Costs Per Acre Burned

  Forest Service Interior
2010 2,834 177
2011 818 200
2012 564 105
2013 983 252
2014 1,371 264
2015 922 ?
Average 916 171

As the table above shows, the Forest Service habitually spends more than five times as much as the Department of the Interior per acre burned on their respective lands. Unlike the Forest Service, Interior agencies have never had a blank check for suppressing fire, so they have had little incentive to wildly overspend. 

Worse, Congress’ policy of giving the Forest Service the average of its previous ten years’ of fire suppression costs gives the agency an incentive to spend more each year so that its ten-year average spirals upwards. Meanwhile, in mild fire years, Congress says that the appropriated fire suppression funds that the agency doesn’t need “may be transferred to the National Forest System, and Forest and Rangeland Research accounts to fund forest and rangeland research, the Joint Fire Science Program, vegetation and watershed management, heritage site rehabilitation, and wildlife and fish habitat management and restoration.” 

Thus, it’s heads the Forest Service wins; tails the taxpayers lose. When fire years are mild, the agency gets a windfall to spend on non-fire programs. When fire years are severe, it gets to borrow from those non-fire programs to spend all it wants on fire suppression, knowing it will be reimbursed–and then complains that its non-fire programs are hurt by the borrowings.

One of the reasons why the administration and some environmental groups are behind the Forest Service proposal to give it $2.9 billion a year to draw upon is that increasing fire costs fit neatly into their global climate apocalypse. Yet the data don’t show that the United States is suffering worse droughts today than in the past. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the percentage of the nation that was severely or extremely dry during summer months (July-September) averaged about 15 percent in 2015. That’s high, but hardly a record.

In recent years, this percentage has ranged as low as 3 percent in 1992 to as high as 24 percent in 1953. It was 20 percent in 2012 and 22 percent in 2000. There was a six-year period in the 1950s when it was 15 percent or more in all but one year (when it was 13 percent), and reached as high as 24 percent. So far, both the 1930s and the 1950s were dryer than the 2010s. This suggests that droughts are cyclical, not growing.

What is growing is the Forest Service’s spending on fire. It will continue to grow until Congress gives the agency incentives to contain its costs rather than incentives to spend more each year.