News & Features

Can Congress Solve Wildfire Funding?

The rising costs of fire operations are consuming vast chunks of the Forest Service’s budget

A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service to manage 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, a mission that today is being consumed by the ever-increasing costs of fighting fires.

As wildfire season becomes longer and blazes grow more intense due in part to climate change and sluggish timber management, the rising expenditures of firefighting are eating up the Forest Service’s budget at an unsustainable pace.

Despite widespread agreement on the seriousness of the fire-funding conundrum, and the immediate need for a solution, some members of Congress have been accused of playing politics by making extreme demands that would limit public involvement in the management of national forests to streamline timber harvests.

As another wildfire season begins in earnest across the West, adequately funding wildfire suppression on public lands is at the center of debate, even as a chorus of lawmakers raise concerns about a proposed federal budget by President Donald Trump that cuts critical resources from the Forest Service coffers.

The cost of wildfire suppression has tripled over the past 30 years, according to an agency report in 2015.

Wildfire prevention efforts used 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget in 1995, 52 percent in 2015, and are projected to cost 67 percent in 2025. The swelling expense of wildfires has directly led to a 68 percent reduction in facility maintenance, a 15 percent cut to recreation and an 18 percent cut to wildlife and fish habitat management.

Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could equate to reductions of nearly $700 million from non-fire programs compared to today’s funding levels. That means that in just 10 years, two out of every three dollars the Forest Service receives from Congress as part of its appropriated budget will be spent on fire programs.

Montana’s congressional delegation is on the hunt for a funding fix, but so far hasn’t come up with a solution that enjoys the bipartisan support necessary to pass.

“There is debate in Congress on whether we should treat wildfires as natural disasters, and I think we should,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, stated in a press release. “And we ought to just admit that fire seasons are getting more intense and they are getting longer, and if we can just free up more dollars for the Forest Service in the next 10 years, we can bring the fire risk down.”

Tester has been an outspoken critic of the proposed Forest Service budget, and had a harsh exchange with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell last month.

“I would be less than honest with you if I didn’t tell you that this budget was a wreck,” Tester told Tidwell. “If you are spending money fighting fires, you are not spending it on timber management. The sooner we can find a fix to dealing with the firefighting funding problem, the sooner we can clean up our forests.”

Tester also sponsored the Western Wildfire Initiative to pay for catastrophic wildfires through separate emergency funding, allowing the Forest Service to devote more resources to proactive forest management.

Meanwhile, conservatives in Congress have drawn up a funding fix geared toward wildfire risk reduction that some critics say would benefit the timber industry by softening environmental regulations.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, has co-sponsored the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, and introduced legislation to offer litigation relief to agencies like the Forest Service. Under the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, agencies’ disaster budget caps could be adjusted as the cost of firefighting increases.

“We can’t get logs to the mills — it’s a sad, sad state of affairs — and it is because of these extreme environmental groups who are litigating many of our sales that we have right now in Montana,” Daines said. “We aren’t taking care of the forest — then we see them burn. We can reduce the wildfire risk, as we know, by actively managing our forests.”

Daines has also expressed support for the Resilient Federal Forests Act, first introduced in 2015, but which a coalition of Montana sportsmen, timber leaders, outfitters, business owners, and conservationists say is out of sync with the brand of collaboration-driven forest management solution that best suits Montana’s interests.

The bill puts timber harvests above all else, critics say, and opens the door for unsuitable forest management while limiting public involvement. It would also require those litigating forest projects or policy to post a bond and categorically exclude projects that have collaborative support with the goal of increasing the size of projects.

Meanwhile, members of the Western Governors’ Association, including Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, are urging Congress to end the practice of “fire borrowing,” where the agency uses resources allocated for other purposes to fight wildfires.

None of the bills have passed through Congress in the past, but elements of several bills could be cobbled together to gain bipartisan support in Republican majorities.