WASHINGTON, DC - The U.S. Forest Service faces mounting challenges: record droughts, longer wildfire seasons and the increasing percentage of the agency's budget spent fighting wildland fires. Yet the pace and scale of forest restoration has grown nine percent since 2011, according to their newly released Restoration Report. 

Despite the gains, the agency says at least 65 million National Forest System acres are still in need of restoration work. The rising cost of wildfire suppression, as fires have become more intense and more expensive to fight in recent years, has taken funding away from restoration, watershed and wildlife programs, limiting the Forest Service's ability to do the work that would prevent fires in the first place.

"There's a reason the U.S. Forest Service is not, and should not be, the 'U.S. Fire Service,' and that is because Americans need all of this important management work to be done for people, water and wildlife," said Cecilia Clavet, senior policy adisor at The Nature Conservancy. 

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Before a single fire broke out in 2015, the Forest Service started the Fiscal Year with a budget of $115 million less for all work not related to fire than the previous year. Budget constraints have also reduced staffing for restoration, watershed and recreation by nearly 40 percent, from about 18,000 in 1998 to fewer than 11,000 people in 2015.

More than half of the Forest Service's budget is dedicated to fighting wildfire in 2015, compared to just 16 percent in 1995. 

The additional 400,000 acres that the Forest Service treated over the past three years brings the total treated to 4.6 million acres, an area larger than New Jersey. These treatments reduced the potential impact of wildfires and produced 2.8 million board feet of timber volume, enough for 93,000 single-family homes. 

Other highlights from the Restoration Report the include: 

•                The agency helped facilitate investment in more than 230 wood-to-energy projects with a combined investment of nearly $1 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees since 2009.

•                Since 2011, the Forest Service has restored 1.2 million acres of insect and disease-infested forests, resulting in 470,000 green tons of biomass.

•                Since 2012, the Forest Service has identified more than 300 priority watersheds and completed restoration work to improve the condition of 53 of those watersheds.

 

Healthy forests and grasslands provide Americans with clean air and water, wood products, energy, recreation opportunities, and habitat for fish and wildlife. Healthy forests are also better able to withstand the stresses of drought, a changing climate and wildfire.

Bipartisan Bill Seeks To Treat Wildfires Like Natural Disasters

"The Forest Service has made tremendous progress in conducting restoration work to keep our forests healthy and resilient. However, because of the growing cost of fighting more frequent and dangerous wildfires, much of the work that supports healthy forests is being starved", said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The magnitude of the crisis demands that we cannot go another year without a solution to the Forest Service's broken fire budget. There is broad agreement that we need to fix the way we pay for wildfires. We have provided Congress with a straightforward solution to enable us to do the work we need to do and now it is up to Congress to act."

Fire suppression costs have exceeded appropriations every year since 1990, according to The Nature Conservancy, leading to the transfer of more than $1 billion from USFS and Department of the Interior forest programs to cover fire suppression shortfalls. 
 
The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, already introduced in the House and Senate, mirrors a similar proposal in President Obama's Fiscal Year 2016 Budget. It would provide a mechanism to treat wildfires more like other natural disasters, end "fire transfers" and partially replenish the ability to restore resilient forests and protect against future fire outbreaks. The bill would increase the acres the Forest Service could treat annually by one million acres and increase timber outputs by 300 million board feet annually.
 
The bill was introduced last year but was abandoned by the Idaho Republican who introduced the measure, Rep. Mike Simpson, and Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who at the time was chairman of the House Budget Committee and is the current Speaker of the House. Ryan said the bill was allowed to languish because it would increase the Federal budget. 
 
"In case the Republican leadship hasn't noticed, the west is going up in flames," said Peter DeFazio (D-OR) in releasing a House Natural Resources Committee analysis of the problem after the vote stalled. "Yosemite is burning...we should have dropped this charade and done something real: fixed wildfire funding before our agencies run out of money. There is no excuse for inaction."
 
The bill has been reintroduced this year and Democrats are trying to force a vote, having secured 196 votes so far for the measure, 22 short of the 218 required to force a vote. In co-sponsoring the bill with Simpson, Rep. Ken Calvert, a California Republican, stated, "Wildfires are inevitable natural disasters, just like hurricanes and earthquakes.  It simply makes no sense to hamstring the Forest Service like we have been and keep making it nearly impossible for them to plan and carry out their mission. How many more wildfires have to scorch our landscapes before Congress passes the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act and makes federal emergency funds available to battle wildfires?”
 
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack summed up the frustration many feel at the politics involved in a recent article in The Washington Post by Chris Mooney: "The reality is, every year there's an acknowledgement that there's a problem, and every year, for whatever reason, Congress finds it difficult to actually solve it."
 

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