In recent years, the rising cost of fighting wildfires in National Forests has forced the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to pay for fire suppression efforts from money in its budget that is meant for forest health projects in states like Washington. The practice, known as “fire borrowing,” has made it difficult for the federal agency to address poor forest health and high density that affects millions of acres of Washington forestland in its jurisdiction. USFS currently manages 28 percent of forestland across Washington.
That era likely has ended with the passage of the new federal omnibus spending bill which changes the way wildfire fighting costs are funded. For USFS, the new funding mechanism could also mean more opportunities to work with the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on public land management projects as part of a new agreement.
Last year, USFS spent $2 billion – over half its budget – on wildfire fighting. In comparison, firefighting only consumed 16 percent of USFS’ budget in 1995. As part of the new federal budget, USFS will receive $2 billion above its regular budget, starting in 2020.
Washington state’s 2017 wildfire season had 50 large fires on USFS land. Over 411,000 acres burned, costing the agency $130 million. According to USFS, 91 percent of the fires were human-caused.
News of the new federal funding was well received by private landowners as well as conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy. In a statement, President Mark Tercek called the USFS provision “a significant win for our nation’s forests and communities. This will free up federal agencies to spend more of their budgets on programs that make forests healthier and less fire prone, ultimately protecting people and property across the U.S.”
In a statement, American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) President Travis Joseph wrote that the budget shows that “fixing our broken system of forest management is not a partisan issue. While more congressional action is needed to address the full scope of our national forest health crisis, this agreement represents clear progress.” AFRC is a trade association that represents Pacific Northwest logging and milling companies.
Ending fire-borrowing has been a priority for U.S. lawmakers representing Washington state; in 2016, lawmakers worked on a bill that, like the federal spending bill, would have protected forest health money from raids to pay for wildfires by providing additional funding. In 2015, Congress doubled funding for the USFS wildfire suppression budget from the previous year to $1.6 billion in order to prevent fire-borrowing.
Two lawmakers heavily involved in the push for new USFS funding were Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA 5).
Last year, DNR and the Forest Service entered into a Good Neighbor Authority agreement intended to take advantage of land management opportunities in both jurisdictions.
USFS Pacific Northwest Regional Office Spokesperson Traci Weaver told Lens that with the Good Neighbor Agreement “We can use their (DNR) resources, and DNR folks can do more work on Forest Service lands. It’s also creating economic opportunities across boundaries.”
According to the USFS Pacific Northwest Region’s 2017 report, the agency treated 550,000 acres of forestland and improved five watersheds in both Washington and Oregon. USFS also reforested 21,000 acres and had 700,000 acres evaluated for post-fire recovery assessments.
“The emphasis (moving forward) is going to be on healthier, more resilient landscape and more fire-adept communities,” Weaver said. “Any collaboration we can do with our partners in other organizations to make our communities more resilient.”