Wildfires Consuming Forest Service Budgets

 by Damon Arthur

as published by Redding Record Searchlight

From 2010 to 2015 wildfires consumed about 67,000 acres a year on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

During that time, U.S. Forest Service officials treated about 10,000 acres annually through thinning and control burns intended to reduce the size of wildfires when they occur.

"Prescribed fire is one of the more effective and cost-efficient means of managing vegetation for multiple purposes, including hazard reduction, ecosystem restoration or maintenance, silviculture and others," Deputy Forest Fire Management Officer Alex McBath said in an email.

The Lassen National Forest did thinning and burning on about 14,000 acres during the 2014-15 fiscal year, said forest spokeswoman Joyce El Kouarti.

But Forest Service officials have also complained for years they have been forced to take money intended for forest management programs such as thinning and control burns and use it for firefighting instead.

Each year Congress has allotted the Forest Service money for forest thinning, but as wildland fires have become larger and more destructive the agency has been forced to use prevention funds to fight fires.

Shasta-Trinity Forest spokeswoman Phyllis Swanson said other programs, such as recreation, also suffer.

However, attempts in Congress to change the way wildland fires are paid for have been stymied.

One bill, HR 167, would have allowed the Forest Service and other land management agencies to use emergency funds to pay for wildfire suppression, rather than prevention funds. But the bill did not get out of Congress.

The 2016 budget includes more money for firefighting and prevention, but it isn't enough, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.

"While these funds are helpful, I am extremely disappointed that Congress did not enact a comprehensive fix to the wildland firefighting budget," Vilsack said in a letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Appropriations Committee.

Vilsack said the cost of fighting wildfires consumed about 60 percent of the agency's budget in 2015.

Vilsack said this year he would not transfer money from prevention and other programs if the Forest Service uses up its firefighting budget.

"If the amount Congress appropriated in FY 2016 is not sufficient to cover fire suppression costs, Congress will need to appropriate additional funding on an emergency basis," Vilsack said in his letter.

The Record Searchlight asked candidates for the 1st Congressional District what they think needed to be done to address the issue. David Peterson, a Democrat from Placerville, did not return several phone messages.

Doug LaMalfa

The Republican incumbent said proper forest management would go a long way toward reducing catastrophic wildfires.

LaMalfa said he still supports HR 167, but he said there are other bills in Congress that would help spur forest clearing. He said he supported bills that would promote removing brush and smaller trees that could be used as biomass.

He supported measures that would help make biomass and thinning more profitable to companies.

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