Forest Service ‘borrowed’ from panoply of programs since ’02

By Phil Taylor | 08/18/2015 12:55 PM EDT

Shortfalls in wildfire funding have hampered the Forest Service’s ability to repair the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, maintain grazing fences and protect bats from white-nose syndrome, but they’ve had relatively little effect on the agency’s ability to thin hazardous trees that could fuel the next mega-fire, according to budget data obtained by Greenwire.

Shortfalls in wildfire funding have hampered the Forest Service’s ability to repair the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, maintain grazing fences and protect bats from white-nose syndrome, but they’ve had relatively little effect on the agency’s ability to thin hazardous trees that could fuel the next mega-fire, according to budget data obtained by Greenwire.

The data reveal which programs suffered the most as a result of wildfire "borrowing" over the past 13 years and which are most at risk of future borrowing if Congress is unable to overhaul the agency’s wildfire budget.

But the data also seem to undercut a key talking point of the Obama administration, lawmakers and conservationists that wildfire borrowing has impeded the agency’s ability to make forests less fire-prone.


Since 2002, the Forest Service has transferred $3.2 billion from non-suppression accounts to help it combat wildfires, but only $10 million of that came from the wildland fire hazardous fuels program used to thin dense trees and brush from the forest, according to data.

However, the data do not refute a key argument made by administration officials: Fire borrowing is highly disruptive to the Forest Service’s ability to keep forests healthy and accessible to the American public.

Over a dozen years, the agency has transferred to its wildfire program nearly half a billion dollars from the National Forest System, the account that funds everything from timber sales to invasive species control on 193 million acres of forests and grasslands, according to the data.

Some funding for NFS goes to the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, whose mission includes the reduction of hazardous fuels and reducing firefighting risks, among other ecological goals.

It has also borrowed $382 million from an account to maintain recreation sites, roads and research facilities; $300 million from accounts to acquire new lands for wildlife and recreation; and more than $130 million from a program that provides technical and financial aid to private forest owners.

Fire borrowing happens when the Forest Service runs out of suppression funding midsummer and must "borrow" from other accounts to keep its roughly 10,000 wildland firefighters and dozens of aircraft operating. It’s happened seven times since fiscal 2002 as drought, overstocked forests and more homes in the forest drive up the cost of wildland fire.

Borrowing forces the agency to put a halt to non-fire programs like trail maintenance, capital improvements and invasive species work until Congress reimburses those accounts — which doesn’t always happen.

Even in years when the Forest Service does not have to borrow funds, the threat of a wildfire funding shortfall has delayed and shuttered projects that improve forest health and reduce hazardous fuels, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told a Senate committee in May.

The administration is urging Congress to provide the Forest Service and Interior Department access to non-discretionary disaster funds to eliminate the borrowing threat. Roughly a dozen Western senators of both parties recently pledged to debate the idea in earnest this fall (E&ENews PM, Aug. 6).

"Fires should be funded like other natural disasters, rather than forcing the Forest Service to take money from other programs that can help reduce the severity and cost of future wildfires," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said June 9 during a wildfire briefing in Denver with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Yet critics of the proposal say the agency is hyping the damage of borrowing.

"Almost every year, the lament is the same," said a Web post by the environmental group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "Fire borrowing is counterproductive, because it takes money away from projects designed to mitigate wildfire risks."

"But there’s a problem," the post added. "It’s not really true."

FSEEE Executive Director Andy Stahl
pointed to a report the Forest Service released last summer that listed more than 300 projects that were delayed or canceled as a result of fire borrowing in 2012 and 2013. They included oil and gas projects on the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, land acquisition in the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania and abandoned mine work in the Tahoe National Forest in California.

But only 13 involved work that could reduce the risk of major wildfires, Stahl said.

When Tidwell sent a memo to staff members in August 2013 warning of upcoming fire borrowing, he ordered they defer the award of any contract, grant and other procurement "other than hazardous fuels projects."

Moreover, the data show that roughly half of the money borrowed for wildfires comes from mandatory funds or "trust" funds outside the Forest Service’s discretionary budget that, according to Stahl, has "no effect on current-year spending or activities."

Transferring money from permanent funding sources is simply "pushing electrons" — transferring millions of dollars from one account to suppression while counting on Congress to refill the pot at year’s end — Stahl said.

But Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano said transfers from discretionary and mandatory programs are "equally disruptive."

"When there is less money to do important work that is critical to carrying out our mission, that work will be postponed, which creates a backlog and the effects are cumulative," she said. "The bottom line is that work that must be done will not get done when we have to take money from non-fire accounts to fund fire suppression."

FSEEE opposes disaster funding, arguing that spending more on fires is fiscally and ecologically reckless.

"We oppose writing the Forest Service another blank check to finance wasteful, ineffective and environmentally damaging firefighting practices," Stahl said.

Other programs go wanting

According to the Forest Service data, the agency since 2002 has transferred $843 million from the Knutson-Vandenberg fund to its wildfire suppression fund, nearly twice what’s been transferred from any other account since then.

The K-V fund uses timber receipts to plant new trees and improve fish and wildlife habitat, but it does not finance wildfire abatement or risk reduction, Stahl said.

In 2013, the Forest Service transferred $170 million from K-V and another $183 million from Restoration of Forest Lands, which uses proceeds from legal settlements to repair damage from strip mines or human-caused wildfires, to meet a roughly $500 million wildfire funding shortfall.

Ottaviano said those two programs, as well as nine other programs the Forest Service borrowed from in 2013, "to a varying degree will reduce the threat and cost of future wildfires."

Wildfire risks aside, the transfers have impaired funding for Forest Service programs that benefit a host of stakeholders, including conservationists, sportsmen, loggers, miners and ranchers, all of whom have backed legislation to fund some wildfires with disaster funding.

Of the $3.2 billion in fire transfers that have occurred since 2002, roughly 15 percent came from the National Forest System; 12 percent came from Capital Improvements and Maintenance; 9 percent came from the Land and Water Conservation Fund; and 4 percent came from State and Private Forestry
. Just under 6 percent of borrowing came from four other discretionary programs.

The remaining 56 percent came from permanent funds.

Borrowing is happening with increasing frequency at the Forest Service, leading to the delay or cancellation of contracts and grants.

Even if borrowing can be stopped, the rising cost of wildfires means the Forest Service is now spending more than half its budget fighting them. It has forced the agency to budget less on non-fire programs that protect watersheds, defend against invasive species, reduce wildfire risks, maintain roads and support research, according to a recent Forest Service report.

"The current system of paying for wildfires by, perpetually, taking funding away from the programs that enable the agency to maintain recreation facilities and complete important restoration projects is simply unacceptable," Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said in an Aug. 6 colloquy in the Congressional Record, with 11 other senators engaged in finding a wildfire funding fix. "We can’t sit idle and expect this budget issue to fix itself."

Cantwell, the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the Forest Service and Interior need adequate funds to fight fires, but they also need to ensure the money is being spent efficiently.

Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said he is discussing "a fiscally responsible solution to wildfire funding and fire borrowing" with his Western colleagues.