U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell noted in recent testimony given to the House Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee that more than half of the agency's annual budget now goes toward fire suppression. The cost of fighting wildfires this season reached a record. More than $1.7 billion has been spent to fight about 50,000 wildfires across the nation. Nine million acres have burned, and 2,500 single-family homes have been destroyed.

In 1995, fire suppression made up 16 percent of the Forest Service's annual appropriated budget. This year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the budget will be dedicated to fire.

"Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent," Tidwell told subcommittee members. "We are at a critical moment in the history of the Forest Service. Urgent action is needed in order to ensure that the Forest Service does not become further hindered by the continually increasing percentage of our budget that is dedicated to wildfire suppression activities."

During this fiscal year, a record 700 million dollars of Forest Service funds that should have been spent on forest restoration, watershed protection and recreation programs were transferred to cover firefighting costs. In other words, there isn't enough money to pay for responsible forest management because so much is being spent on fires. But experience teaches us that without responsible forest management there will be more fires, so acting now to reduce the threat of future wildland fires will drastically reduce costs in the long run.

Tidwell's testimony echoes a message counties have been sending to Congress for years. In fact, here in El Paso County, we approved a resolution endorsing the Healthy Forest Management Act, first proposed by Colorado 3rd District Congressman Scott Tipton in 2012. Since then, we have worked continuously through the National Association of Counties for badly needed reforms to ensure responsible management of our forests. Taking away forest management funds to fight fires is simply the wrong approach. It is far more expensive to fight fires and deal with their aftermath than it is to responsibly manage forest lands so that catastrophic fires can be prevented.

El Paso County hosted a "Fire and Forestry Summit" in May to highlight critical needs for restoration and mitigation. Both of our Colorado senators attended and recognized the importance of prefire and disaster mitigation. In August, Sen. Cory Gardner returned for a tour to inspect the Waldo Canyon fire and the ongoing flooding and erosion problems that will be a costly burden on local resources for decades to come. He said the practice of "fire borrowing (taking mitigation and management funds to fight fires) has to stop."

During a meeting of the Senate Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Nov. 5, Sen. Michael Bennet echoed Sen. Gardner's concerns. "There is a compelling consensus that what we are doing now does not work, that we have got to change and it's long overdue."

Counties across the nation and particularly those in Western states recognize that this is a critical national issue that must be addressed. As president of the National Association of Counties (NACo), representing 3,069 counties, parishes and boroughs across the country, I am working to make sure that the concerns of counties are known and understood in Washington.

Responsible, healthy forest management is one of our most urgent concerns.


Sallie Clark is El Paso County commissioner for District 3 and president of the National Association of Counties.

View original article, posted on Gazette.com Nov. 11, 2015 HERE