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Forest Service Budget Wrecked by Firefighting Costs

By Frank Priestley

The U.S. Forest Service circulated a strongly-worded press release recently stating the cost of firefighting has eclipsed half of the agency’s budget.

The solution recommended by USFS is to throw more money at the problem, which is not a long term fix in our view.

Every federal agency would like more money. What seems to have gotten lost in the Washington D.C. shuffle is the fact that our government is currently running a $17 trillion deficit. As a percentage of our gross domestic product (GDP), the U.S. debt load is about equal to the debt, which is better than Japan or Italy, but lags behind all other developed nations. The report from the Forest Service shows arrogance and a lack of understanding of common sense budgeting. Cutting budgets is what Washington needs to learn how to do rather than throwing money at problems that don’t lead to solutions.

$17 trillion is a colossal amount of money – too much to comprehend. Time Magazine provided the following illustration in 2009, the first time our budget deficit eclipsed the $1 trillion mark. The article states that one million seconds is about 11.5 days. One billion seconds is about 32 years, and one trillion seconds is about 32,000 years.

In order to get back to a balanced budget, there are only four areas of government spending that truly mean anything in the realm of a budget deficit this large. They include, military spending, Social Security, Medicare and servicing the debt, or in other words, paying interest on a giant load of debt. Everything else is just peanuts. So maybe that’s why the Forest Service thinks government can just slide them a billion or so to help them keep doing what they’re doing. Then in another few years, maybe the government can slide the Forest Service some more, and on and on . . .

The thinking that someone else will take care of the problem at some point in the future and that no one is accountable for the problem appears to have become pervasive in Washington D.C.

But let’s take a closer look at how the Forest Service got into this mess. The Forest Service’s problems are real and we are in no way making light of them. But the bottom line is when forests aren’t managed they burn. The Forest Service press release states that millions of dollars are being re-routed from forest management and recreation to pay for firefighting. The same thing is happening with Forest Service personnel. The number of Forest Service employees who aren’t firefighters has dropped from 18,000 in 1998 to 11,000 today, while the number of firefighters has doubled.

The press release states that climate change and “other factors” are causing the increase in firefighting costs. We will submit that the “other factors” referred to in the press release are environmental groups that choose to litigate nearly every single forest management activity that is proposed, to include controlled burns, logging, road building, insect control and many others. It’s come the point where the Forest Service can’t authorize the cutting of a single tree on public land without getting sued by an environmental group. This situation is ironic because the very people who are out to save the environment have created a scenario wherein our forests are being systematically destroyed by fire.

To sum things up, the Forest Service no longer wants to be responsible for the costs of fighting fires. They would rather that money came from somewhere else. The problem is, there isn’t any more money to spend. We don’t know how people in far-away cities may interpret this call for action by the Forest Service. But for people who live in rural areas near Forest Service lands, there is very little sympathy for an agency that refuses to coordinate forest management efforts or even acknowledge that economies in rural communities matter. If the Forest Service’s main charge becomes firefighting then its recreational aspects will have to take a back seat. We don’t see a good reason to appropriate more money to firefighting when proper forest management would solve the problem.