By Mike Beacom
Summer 2017 may be remembered years from now for its devastating hurricanes, but it has also proven to be yet another record-setting fire season.
Federal wildfire spending has increased steadily over the past three decades, but even more rapidly over the past five years. Two years ago, the Forest Service spent a record $1.71 billion on fighting wildfire; this year that total has eclipsed the $2 billion mark. In terms of total federal spending – the combined spending of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – this year’s tab will be close to $2.5 billion, also a record and roughly 25 percent more expensive than the 2016 fire season.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the 2017 fire season burned more than 8 million acres, or 2.5 million more acres than an average fire season. But the word “average” means less year after year when it comes to wildfire figures.
Take for instance the 10-year funding average that agency and congressional leaders rely on to project future fire funding levels. Firefighting will account for close to 60 percent of the Forest Service’s budget this year, a percentage that has more than tripled since the mid-1980s. That affords the agency less funding for forest management and mitigation efforts, which ultimately help reduce the threat and costs of future wildfires. It’s a vicious cycle U.S. Department of Agriculture Sonny Perdue hopes to end through legislation.
“I feel so strongly because that’s no way to manage a budget, no way to manage a department,” Perdue told reporters in early September. “All we’re asking for is: appropriate the money we need and can use effectively to manage our forests ahead of time.”
Congressional leaders have volleyed various fire funding fixes between the House and Senate the past several years, but nothing has stuck. In speaking to the country’s State Forestry leaders in West Virginia, both Perdue and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke said they believe the solution is closer now than ever before. Those guiding that discussion on Capitol Hill made similar pleas.
“Active forest management is needed to stop the spread of catastrophic wildfires,” said Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AR), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, during a September hearing. “Irreplaceable natural resources and human lives are at stake, and we must focus on the immediate solutions available.”
The National Association of Conservation Districts has invested time in recent years surveying members in an effort to learn where conservation districts can assist pre- and post-fire efforts. Many of the association’s findings are available in a white paper published earlier this year. Districts across the country are engaged in a number of efforts to assist state and federal partners:
- Much of Montana was impacted by wildfire this summer to the detriment of local ranchers. Thanks to a relationship between the Garfield County Conservation District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency opened the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge for emergency grazing relief, ensuring local ranchers wouldn’t be forced to sell their livestock early at discounted prices.
- In September, the Rio Grande and Center Conservation Districts co-hosted a defensible space workshop with the Colorado Forest Service. The day-long workshop featured speakers and demonstrations for how to protect property against wildfire. Workshop organizers targeted residents living in the wildland urban-interface.
- Earlier this year, the Spokane County Conservation District helped an area landowner restore steep forested land devastated by a 2016 wildfire. The landowner applied for recovery assistance through the conservation district to cover aerial application. The native grass seed is attached to a mulch of wheat straw. When dropped on the ground, the pellet absorbs moisture and the seeds germinate at about 40 to 45 degrees.
If your conservation district is assisting local wildfire efforts, please share your story with NACD Forestry Specialist Mike Beacom. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.