New Report Shows Budget Impact of Rising Firefighting Costs
Secretary Vilsack Renews Call to Better Protect Public Forests from Wildfire Threats
WASHINGTON—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new report showing that as the cost of fighting forest fires has rapidly increased over the last 20 years, the budgets for other forest programs, including those that can help prevent and mitigate fire damage, have substantially shrunk. The Forest Service's firefighting appropriation has rapidly risen as a proportion of the Forest Service's overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today, forcing cuts in other budget areas.
"Climate change, drought, fuel buildup and insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America's forests," Vilsack said. "In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combatting fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago. This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies."
Vilsack noted that on top of the budget reductions outlined in the new report, the Forest Service's non-fire program budgets are affected by "fire borrowing." Funds spent on fire suppression have exceeded the allocated amount in all but four years since 2000. In these cases, the shortfall is covered through transferring, or "borrowing" additional funds from Forest Service programs that have already been cut over the last 20 years. Secretary Vilsack renewed his request to Congress to allow an existing disaster fund to provide resources to fight catastrophic fires in years when Forest Service and Department of Interior fire costs exceed the amount Congress has budgeted, rather than forcing borrowing from non-fire programs.
"Bipartisan proposals to fund catastrophic fire like other natural disasters could help ensure that efforts to make forests more healthy and resilient and support local tourism economies aren't impacted as significantly as they have been in recent years," Vilsack said. "These proposals don't increase the deficit, they just budget smarter by allowing existing natural disaster funding to be used in cases of catastrophic wildfire."
Today's report shows the extent to which many Forest Service program budgets have been cut even before borrowing occurs to accommodate for the rapid rise in firefighting costs in the past 20 years.