Fires foil forest work, services

Across the nation, the 2017 wildfire season was unprecedented in terms of dollars spent, acres burned, and the increased duration of wildfires. Even now, months later, we’re still feeling the impacts from these fires, especially financially.

As wildfires grow more severe — and costly — the USDA Forest Service is struggling to adequately fund projects that are important to our communities because of soaring firefighting costs.

Each year, firefighting costs consume more and more of the USDA Forest Service’s budget. In 1995, firefighting costs accounted for 15 percent of the Forest Service budget. In 2017, it was 57 percent. At the rate things are going, firefighting will consume 67 percent of our budget by 2021. This means less money for other priority USDA Forest Service programs and services, including recreation, visitor services, and much-needed fire prevention work that reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the first place.

The Forest Service is the only federal agency that is required to fund its entire emergency management program through its regular appropriations. This includes wildfires that are truly natural disasters — lightning-starts rapidly driven by wind that burn faster and more intensely than firefighters can control.

In the Pacific Northwest, this funding model means that projects designed to actually decrease the severity of wildfire are being delayed, deferred maintenance is growing for recreation sites and critical infrastructure, and damaged roads from fire or storms are going unrepaired.

This means that trash at campgrounds goes unemptied, toilets uncleaned, and we are forced to make hard decisions on whether we can safely keep roads and recreation sites open. The funding challenges directly impact our ability to provide excellent and safe visitor experiences.

With an enhancement to the way wildfire suppression efforts are funded in the Blue Mountains, the Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests could focus funding on managing the land toward more resilient conditions by completing important restoration and thinning projects, such as implementation of some of our recently completed projects including the Malheur Ten Year Stewardship Contract, the Ten Cent Community Wildfire Protection Project and the Lower Joseph Creek Restoration Project. Additionally, we could focus on opportunities to increase the pace and scale of restoration in those watersheds that have been identified as most at risk to wildfires and insect and disease outbreaks.

USDA is dedicated to fostering the productive and sustainable use of your national forests and grasslands. If you can’t use and enjoy your public lands to the fullest, that’s a problem.

While the Forest Service is working more closely with partners and volunteers to leverage resources and accomplish more than we could by ourselves, our current fiscal path is simply unsustainable.

We deeply appreciate the ongoing work of Congress to pass new legislation to reform the way wildfire suppression is funded. A commonsense approach would let us get back to the work we care about most — meeting the many different needs of the communities we serve, for the benefit of generations to come.

Tom Montoya is supervisor of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest; Jeff Tomac is acting supervisor of the Umatilla National Forest; and Steve Beverlin is supervisor of the Malheur National Forest.