Wildfires ignite political firestorm centered on faster forest thinning, budget reforms
The U.S. Forest Service remains in something approaching bureaucratic and budget meltdown, with wildfires torching the budget and thinning projects languishing.
Forest Service officials have appealed to Congress to completely overhaul the wildfire budget, to keep the predictable disaster of each fire season from consuming money for everything else the Forest Service does.
In the meantime, Arizona’s senators and governor have crafted an urgent appeal to the Forest Service to both accelerate the Four Forest Restoration Initiative while funding additional thinning projects as well.
The rising heat on wildfire politics comes after a mild fire season in Arizona, but an all-out disaster in California and some other western states.
Fire budget quickly exhausted
The Forest Service quickly exhausted its firefighting budget this year, spending a record $243 million in a single week in a desperate effort to contain fires that consumed more than 750 California homes in a single, catastrophic week.
The cost of fighting wildfires now consumes 52 percent of the Forest Service budget, compared to just 16 percent in 1995.
By 2025, fighting fires will use up two-thirds of the Forest Service budget, according to projections.
The seemingly inexorable rise in wildfires stems from both the effects of record-breaking drought throughout most of the West and a century of fire suppression and overgrazing and logging that have left tree densities 10 to 20 times higher than normal across millions of acres in the West.
The dire situation has prompted lawmakers to call on the Forest Service to put more money and effort into large-scale thinning projects.
Lawmakers advocate thinning
Therefore, the Forest Service should accelerate the pace of forest thinning projects and determine whether 4FRI contractor Good Earth Power AZ can actually pull off the largest forest restoration contract in history, according to letters sent by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and U.S. senators from Arizona John McCain and Jeff Flake.
“We believe that a substantial increase in the number of people and organizations involved in forest thinning, made possible only by timely and consistent access to treatable acres, would serve the dual purposes of the Service managing its forests while ensuring the successful mitigation of Arizona’s risk of catastrophic wildfire,” said the letter sent by all three officials to Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell.
The letter urges Tidwell to not only press forward with 4FRI but to put other companies to work on additional acres.
The Forest Service is working on an unprecedented environmental impact statement on 586,000 acres as part of the 4FRI project. Instead of doing the study one timber sale at a time, this analysis would apply a complex prescription on tree densities and diversity to a vast swath of landscape all at once.
Instead of marking individual trees for cutting, the 4FRI approach would train private crews to apply the prescription in the field — with special rules for areas around archaeological sites, streams, spotted owl nesting sites, meadows and other critical habitats.
4FRI falls years behind schedule
However, after shuffling contractors the 4FRI project has fallen several years behind schedule. Instead of thinning 30,000 acres annually, Good Earth has thinning only a couple thousand acres in the past two years as it struggles to get enough trucks, mills and other infrastructure.
The 4FRI approach not only requires Good Earth to turn a profit on small trees less than 16 inches in diameter, the company must also remove vast quantities of brush and saplings with only marginal value as compost, wood chips or fuel for bio-energy plants.
The McCain, Flake and Ducey letters all offer support to the critics of Good Earth’s slow start on 4FRI, but urging the Forest Service to do more to foster work by other contractors and the development of a reinvented wood products industry that can turn a profit on the small trees now choking millions of acres of public land. The previous logging industry relied mostly for its profits on the big, old-growth trees greater than 16 inches in diameter. These big, fire-resistant ponderosa pines once dominated across millions of acres, but now constitute less than 3 percent of the trees in the forest, according to various estimates.
“The pace of treatment activity in the Kaibab and Coconino national forests is unsatisfactory and the efforts to sustain the pace of restoration in the eastern forest, while significant, remains inadequate. Even if fully implemented, the efforts related to 4FRI would only partially restore the northern forests to health,” said the letter.
The letter urged the Forest Service to undertake additional efforts like the White Mountain Stewardship Project, which thinned about 50,000 acres over a 10-year period and is credited with saving Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire. The Forest Service provided a subsidy of about $800 per acre for that project, which fostered about $130 million worth of investment in the wood products industry focused on processing the small trees and brush.
The letter urged the Forest Service to partner with the state and other agencies to undertake thinning and forest health projects and to give Good Earth tight deadlines to clear the hundreds of thousands of acres already available.
Forest Service pleads with Congress
Ironically enough, the Forest Service at the same time is also urging Congress — especially the U.S. Senate — to act on a proposal to dramatically change the way the federal government covers the spiraling cost of fighting wildfires.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan wrote a letter recently urging Congress to budget for wildfires in the same way it budgets for natural disasters like hurricanes.
The proposal would set up a huge wildfire fund the Forest Service and other agencies could tap into as soon as their regular budget for firefighting was exhausted. Currently, the Forest Service and other agencies have to transfer money from other budgeted funds when fires flare up, then hope that Congress will replenish those funds at the end of the budget year. As a result, even when Congress eventually votes more money to compensate, the “fire borrowing” in the budget plays havoc with other activities — including thinning projects intended to prevent wildfires from raging out of control.
As the California fires burned this year in the face of the state’s “extreme” drought conditions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture transferred $250 million into the firefighting budget, boosting it to $700 million with the budget year only half over.
The House earlier this year approved a plan to put money into a wildfire emergency fund, with 19 Democrats joining all the Republicans in support. The measure would also dramatically speed up the approval process for thinning projects. In some cases, it can take three years to approve a single thinning project, but the legislation would set a tight timetable of about three months.
That prompted many environmental groups and some Democrats to oppose the new rules saying that rushing through the thinning approval process would hurt things like recreation, watersheds, endangered species, archaeological sites.
Payson Ranger District’s triumph
On the other hand, the current rules do allow for greatly accelerated approval processes for thinning projects, as demonstrated by the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest. Fire specialists here did an environmental assessment on about 100,000 acres all at once, similar in approach to 4FRI. The Payson Ranger District then waited for year-end thinning and restoration money from the Forest Service, able to move quickly because it had already done the environmental work. This approach has allowed the Payson Ranger District to thin about 50,000 acres to create buffer zones around almost every Rim Country community, demonstrating how to get thinning projects done without having to waive existing environmental requirements.
Despite the unfolding disaster in California and the exhaustion of the Forest Service firefighting budget once again, Congress has not acted on the proposal.
The letter from the federal officials to 16 key members of Congress said, “with the dramatic growth in wildland fire over the last three decades and an expected doubling again by mid-century, it only makes sense that Congress begin treating catastrophic wildfire as the natural disaster it is.”