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Cost of fighting big fires hampers Forest Service programs

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Duluth News Tribune
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The U.S. Forest Service is spending far more money fighting more and larger forest fires, and has less left in its kitty to manage forests before those fires strike.

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That was the summary Wednesday by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who released a new report showing firefighting now accounts for 42 percent of the Forest Service budget, up from 16 percent in 1995.

Meanwhile, the budgets for logging sales, forest thinning and other programs that can help reduce big fires have substantially shrunk. Funding for “vegetative management,” namely logging, has shrunk 22 percent, for example.

The average number of fires on federal lands has more than doubled since 1980, and the total area burned annually has tripled. Vilsack, whose department oversees the Forest Service, said that climate change, more homes and cabins built near forests, unmanaged brush and fuel buildup have combined to drastically increase wildfire severity and the cost of fighting those fires.

“In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combatting fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago,” Vilsack said in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies.”

Forest Service staffing for firefighting positions has increased 110 percent since 1998, the report notes, while staffing for land management on national forests has decreased 35 percent over the same period.

The U.S. Forest Service is the nation’s largest manager of public forested lands, including the Superior and Chippewa national forests in Minnesota and the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin.

Federal money spent on fire suppression has exceeded the allocated amount in 10 of the last 14 years. That shortfall was covered by “borrowing,” from other programs within the agency.

Vilsack on Wednesday renewed his request to Congress to allow for an existing disaster fund to provide resources to fight catastrophic fires in years when Forest Service and Department of Interior fire costs exceed the amount Congress has budgeted, rather than forcing the department to borrow from nonfire programs. That effort, included in the Obama administration’s 2015 budget, would set up a special fund to cover the cost of big fire years.

Other areas hit include programs that support tourism, including maintenance and capital improvements on about 21,600 recreation sites and 23,100 research and other administrative buildings, cut by two-thirds since 2001. Support for recreation, heritage and wilderness activities has been cut by 13 percent. Wildlife and fisheries habitat management has been reduced by 17 percent on national forests.

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John Myers
(218) 723-5344
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