The U.S. Forest Service should not be routinely borrowing money from prevention programs to combat ongoing wildfires. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told Congress last week that taking funds from prevention efforts only leaves behind more fuel in the forests for future fires to burn, exacerbating the situation. Perdue made his remarks during a ceremonial swearing in of new Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke at the Department of Agriculture.
Currently, the fire suppression portion of the Forest Service budget is funded at a rolling ten-year average of appropriations, while the overall Forest Service budget has remained relatively flat. Because the fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the ten-year rolling fire suppression budget average keeps rising, chewing up a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year. The agency has had to borrow from prevention programs to cover fire suppression costs.
Perdue said he would prefer that Congress treat major fires the same as other disasters and be covered by emergency funds so that prevention programs are not raided.
Perdue’s verbatim comments are as follows:
“I’ve had serious concerns about an issue. And I want to be very clear about it. You can have the right leadership. You can have the right people. I believe we have the right leadership. I believe we have the right people. I believe that we have the right processes and the right procedures of attacking and fighting fires. But if you don’t have the resources and the means of dependable funding, that’s an issue.
“Every year, when we have to take, in the Forest Service, and hoard our appropriated dollars in order to have money to fight the fires, where we know they are going to be insufficient, that’s wrong. We need with all of our heart and strength and mind, Tony, to appeal to the appropriators in Congress, and the law writers, to fix the fire borrowing problem once and for all.
“As good as you are, and as well as you know the Forest Service, there’s no way you can manage the Forest Service, not knowing what you’re going to have to spend. That is not the way appropriations should work. I’ve communicated that to OMB, I’m communicating that to members of Congress, I’ve communicated that to the president. And by golly, we hope we’re going to get something done about it this year. I think the momentum is there, along with other disasters.
“I met yesterday with [Office of Management and Budget] Director Mulvaney. We described the need and the issue of a permanent fix and I think we’re along our way to get there. Tony’s going to have to meet with members of Congress and to persuade them that’s the ultimate solution so we can manage ahead of time.
“I’ve told people the analogy – it’s like eating your seed corn. You know, when you have to spend so much fighting fires, you can’t spend the money that’s appropriated to prevent forest fires. You know, Smokey wants us to prevent forest fires, don’t you, Smokey?
“You know the facts. Our budget has moved from 15 percent of fire suppression to over half – 55 percent-plus. It may be more than that this year, in having to fight fires. And there’s no way we can do the kind of forest management and the prescribed burning and harvesting and insect control, all those kinds of things that diminish fires.
“Fires will always be with us. But when we leave a fuel load out there because we have not been able to get to it because of a lack of funding, or dependable funding, we’re asking for trouble. We’re asking for disasters, year in and year out. And that’s what we hope to get fixed.
“I want you all to know that I’m fighting hard for that. Tony Tooke’s going to fight hard for that. This whole department at USDA is going to fight hard to communicate to Congress and the administration that we need a permanent fire funding and stop this fire borrowing once and for all. So, thank you all for understanding that and understanding where we need to devote our resources.”