The Whitetail Fire in Custer State Park this month is one tiny flare-up in a long-term increase in wildfire driven by climate change.
The Trump budget not only ends programs to study and combat climate change but also fails to provide more resources to fight wildfires. The budget blueprint sticks with the status quo, saying the President’s plan “Budgets responsibly for wildland fire suppression expenses. The Budget would directly provide the full 10-year rolling average of suppression expenditures.”
The Idaho Falls Post Register explains the status quo isn’t working for wildland fire suppression:
That’s not out of line with prior budgets, but it doesn’t address a problem that Western lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been trying to solve in recent years: “fire borrowing.”
It’s precisely the use of the 10-year average that has been criticized by Western governors, congressmen and the U.S. Forest Service for causing fire borrowing — meaning that the Forest Service runs out of money in its fire budget and has to take money out of other forest management activities to pay for firefighting. That in turn has meant the agency has been able to devote fewer resources to, among other things, fire prevention.
A 2015 Forest Service report warned that the agency was at a “tipping point,” and the excess costs of fighting recent mega-fires were crippling its ability to manage forests.
“This trend of rising fire suppression costs is predicted to continue as long as the 10-year average serves as the funding model and presents a significant threat to the viability of all other services that support our national forests,” the report concluded [Bryan Clark and Jeff Robinson, “Trump’s Budget Could Impact Eastern Idaho,” Idaho Falls Post Register, 2017.03.16].
There’s a bipartisan solution to wildland fire funding—provide more funding!—but the Trump budget ignores that solution and cuts other funds that could help:
The most popular solution — called a “cap adjustment” — favored by many including Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is to set aside a bit under $900 million that the Forest Service could access in years where fire costs are especially high, leaving untouched at least some funds meant for forest management. The proposal has sparked several bipartisan bills with a growing list of supporters, and Barack Obama included it in his 2016 proposed budget.
But the cap adjustment isn’t in Trump’s budget outline. And with a 21 percent cut proposed for the Department of Agriculture, of which the Forest Service is a sub-agency, and a 12 percent cut proposed for the Department of the Interior, of which the Bureau of Land Management is a sub-agency, there would be less non-fire budget to borrow from [Clark and Robinson, 2016.03.16].
Senator John Thune has griped and moaned about the quality of federal wildfire efforts. Perhaps it’s time he put his money where his mouth is and propose some practical amendments to the budget to help the Forest Service fight fires and keep South Dakota from burning up.