Replanting our Nation’s Forests

A Unified Statement from Five Chiefs

Former U.S. Forest Service Chiefs wrote a joint statement letter to Congress regarding fire suppression costs and funding. The letter was submitted for the public record of the House Interior and related agencies appropriation subcommittee. It was also sent to the Chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture, Appropriations, Budget, and Natural Resource Committees. It was sent to the Chairman and ranking members of the subcommittees with jurisdiction over the Forest Service.

Statement of
R. Max Peterson, F. Dale Robertson, Jack Ward Thomas
Michael P. Dombeck, and Dale N. Bosworth
Retired Chiefs of the Forest Service
On the FY2008 Appropriation for the U.S. Forest Service

As Chiefs of the US Forest Service from 1979 to 2007, we wish to express in the strongest way that the Forest Service has been put into an untenable financial situation due to the way fire suppression funding is being handled in the Federal Budget.

The current procedure of funding fire suppression is based on the 10-year average cost. That assumes that fire fighting costs are reasonably predictable and reasonable constant. Examination of historical data reveals that both assumptions are wrong – sometimes dramatically wrong. Recent years have seen increasing fire costs as the result of accumulating drought effects in the West coupled with a series of years that are the warmest on record. Many reputable climatologists and fire behavior specialists predict those trends to continue. These drought and temperature conditions have compounded insect and disease damage in areas affected and the severity of damage is resulting in rapid accumulation in fuels. As a result, and particularly in the West, the fire season is beginning earlier, lasting longer, with increasing intensity. These fires are increasingly difficult and expensive to control. These factors, coupled with inflation, have driven up the costs of fire suppression. Those trends seem likely to continue.

The Forest Service is faced with difficult decisions of how to pay for fire suppression activities that exceed the 10-year average. 1) The historic process of “borrowing” from trust funds is no longer feasible, and 2) the requirement that the FS must ask for the 10-year average fire suppression cost in its budget requests, leads to sudden and unpredictable reductions in funds for non-fire related programs usually in the middle of the summer when all Forest Service programs need funding.

Historically, the FS borrowed money from Trust Funds deposited by timber sale purchasers for reforestation (Knutson-Vandenburg or KV funds) and brush disposal (BD). Congress, then, routinely reimbursed those trust funds through supplemental appropriations well after the end of fire season when actual firefighting costs were known. Generally, this approach worked well enough, as the totals available in such Trust Funds were more than sufficient to cover firefighting costs. This was assured by the 2-3 year lag-time between the time those funds were collected (when timber was harvested) and when associated reforestation and brush disposal projects were scheduled after the timber sale was closed. Since the timber sale program was reduced by over 80 percent over the decade of the 1990’s, these Trust Funds are no longer even close to adequate to assure ability to cover fire suppression costs.

Now, the FS must rely primarily on “borrowing” from appropriated funds for congressionally approved programs in Research, State & Private Forestry, and the management of the National Forests. Since the height of the fire season in the West occurs in the latter 3 months of the Fiscal year, this creates an impossible and ever more routinely occurring situation in financial management. The FS has no way of knowing how much money to hold back from other programs to ensure that they can cover firefighting cost. This not only disrupts the ability of FS to plan their work overall, but severely impacts their accomplishments in Research, S&PF, and National Forest Programs.  Even though Congress has financed these programs, the FS in no longer in a position to implement non-fire suppression operations on anything resembling a logical and plan wise basis.

This problem has been magnified by the decision of the Administration to, simultaneously; reduce the funds requested for non-fire related programs. From FY 2000 through the President’s budget for 2008, the proportion of the FS budget devoted to fire (both preparedness and suppression) increased steadily from 25% to 44%. These increases in funding for fire, coming at a time of ever more  constrained FS budgets, has resulted in a 35% reduction in funding for non-fire programs when adjusted for inflation. FS staffing has been reduced by 5900 positions. With the 10-year average cost of fire suppression increasing by about $80 million per year (with more increases likely in the future) the overall ability of the FS to do its assigned job is more and more limited.

If you want an efficient and effective FS that Congress and the Administration can count on to carry out its statutory mission and congressionally approved and financed programs, this problem must be fixed by providing the flexibility to finance emergency firefighting outside the FS discretionary budget.

R. Max Peterson
Chief, Forest Service
1979 – 1987
F. Dale Robertson
Chief, Forest Service
1987 – 1993
Jack Ward Thomas
Chief Forest Service
1993 – 1996
Michael P. Dombeck
Chief, Forest Service
1997 – 2001
Dale N. Bosworth
Chief, Forest Service
2001 – 2007

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