Monday, October 26, 2020
Oct. 26, 2020

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Brunell: Call it the U.S. Fire Service

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The costs to fight wildfires have risen so high that a pair of Montana’s senators suggest the U.S. Forest Service should be renamed the “U.S. Fire Service.”

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, told the Billings Gazette in late August that rising costs are crippling the agency’s essential non-fire related work. Fire suppression costs now consumer more than half of the Forest Service’s budget, compared to 16 percent 20 years ago.

The lawmakers introduced legislation to appropriate $1.4 billion more to fight forest and range fires this year, but it died. Given our unfettered national debt and failure of federal revenue to keep pace with government spending, it is highly unlikely the Forests Service will see additional funds. It will continue to rob other programs to fight fires.

That means less money for restoration work in watershed, research and technical service and programs that support thousands of recreation jobs which bring money to rural communities.

Firefighting employment at the agency swelled from 5,700 in 1998 to more than 12,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, the non-firefighting staff has been chopped by 40 percent.

Forest road-building has been cut in half and deferred maintenance was cut 95 percent, the Gazette reports, even though $5.1 billion is urgently needed for dam repairs, roads and rural water and sewer projects.

There is a way Congress can infuse more money into the Forest Service budget, employ more workers in the woods and help cash strapped rural timber dependent counties: increase timber sales on federal lands.

In 2013, Oregon Democrats Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader and Republican Rep. Greg Walden drafted legislation which placed about 1.6 million acres of the 2.8 million acres covered by the bill in a state-managed trust focused on timber production. It also restored federal timber payments to counties because logging was restricted or tied up in court.

That bill died because President Obama threatened to veto it.

That same year, former Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican, introduced a bill requiring the Forest Service to produce at least half of the sustainable annual yield of timber required under the law since 1908 and to share 25 percent of those receipts with rural counties.

Hastings said wildfires burned 9.3 million acres in 2012, while the Forest Service only harvested 200,000 acres of timber.

The Richland congressman reasoned the cost of proactive healthy forest management is far less than the cost of wildfire suppression and cleaning up the aftermath.

National forests were created in part to provide timber income for the taxpayers, Hastings said. “But political pressure has slowed harvests to a trickle, resulting in an enormous loss of income for taxpayers.”

Studies show large-scale fires can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a few weeks as motor vehicles do in a year. Scientists estimate that U.S. forest fires release 290 million metric tons of CO2 annually.

“Instead of locking up our national forests — creating the conditions for these massive wildfires — we should put people to work thinning the woods and salvaging dead and diseased trees. We can then use that wood as fuel for highly efficient ‘green energy’ biomass plants,” Hastings concluded.

The bottom line is increasing timber harvests will bring more revenue to the Forest Service, freeing up money for non-fire suppression work. Allowing responsible harvests outside the boundaries of national parks, wilderness or sensitive areas would put people to work, provide lumber for paper products, and lessen the risk of more massive fires.


Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.

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