Burning Down the House (and Trees): Fire Spending Overwhelms Forest Service Budget

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"The trees are turning red and dying, and the public expects us to do something about it," says Phil Bowden, a specialist with the White River National Forest in Colorado. Bowden now spends almost all of his time studying the bark beetle outbreak--which has left hundreds of thousand of acres of dead forest across the Rockies. "We can't chase the bugs, but we can put in some buffers and try to protect communities," he says.

Bowden points to a 14-acre dear-cut above the town of Vail on the forest boundary. The clearing is designed to create a 200-foot break between the dying lodgepole pine forest above and the homes below by promoting the regeneration of a strip of less-flammable aspens. "The mountainside is so steep that the only way to get the trees out was to use helicopters," he says. "They lifted the trees down to a landing near the road below where they were hauled out by truck."

The 14-acre project cost $250,000, and is a small part of a five-year plan to put in fuel breaks and aspen buffers across 1,500 acres surrounding Vail. In this case, the Forest Service partnered with the town of Vail which contributed $200,000 to complete the project.

"They get it," says Bowden. "Five years ago, there is no way you could have done clearcuts above town. Now, they not only accept it, they pay for it."

Funding for critical land management programs has become increasingly scarce for the Forest Service in recent years as the agency has had to divert significant money to fighting larger, more intense fires. Drought and warmer temperatures have lengthened the fire season, and expansion of housing on the fringes of public lands has driven up the costs of fighting fires in the wildland-urban interface. And the agency's own policy of suppressing all fires has led to a tremendous buildup of fuels in many forests. Fire suppression costs now account for 45 percent of the agency's overall budget--up from 13 percent in 1991.

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Under the Bush administration, the Forest Service's budget has been steadily reduced. So as firefighting costs have risen, the agency has been forced to absorb the increases through a 35 percent reduction in other programs since 2000. The programs that have been hit hardest by cutbacks include research, fire preparedness, wildlife habitat restoration, recreation, invasive species control and state and community assistance.

"We are changing from a multi-mission land management and science agency to a firefighting agency," says Michael Rains, director of the Forest Service's Northern Research Station, who adds that he was forced to cut 11 percent from the station budget in 2008. That resulted in big cuts in research programs in atmospheric science, urban watersheds and forest health.

"Six years ago, fire suppression was $400 million of the Forest Service budget," he says. "Now it's well over $1 billion. With a constrained budget, that $600 million has to come from somewhere--science programs, recreation and habitat improvement. We are literally cannibalizing our budget."

Rick Cable, regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region, says that he has been forced to deal with the budget crunch by having fewer people on the ground. "We definitely have less of a field presence now--fewer people working in recreation and wildlife management. We can feel it, and the public can feel it," Cable says.

Maribeth Gustafson, forest supervisor for Colorado's White River National Forest, says that other agencies that manage emergencies are not doing so out of their operating budget. …