The 2017 wildfire season was unprecedented in terms of dollars spent, acres burned, and the increased duration of wildfires. Months later, we’re still feeling impacts from those fires, even in places that didn’t burn. The Siuslaw National Forest has fewer fires due to its wetter climate, but staff, funds, and other resources from the Siuslaw support firefighting across the region and beyond. We’re proud to help, but it comes at a cost.
As wildfires grow more severe — and costly — the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service is struggling to adequately fund projects that are important to our communities because of soaring firefighting costs. On the Siuslaw, this means projects that put community members to work restoring streams and forests, fixing roads, and improving habitat for fish and wildlife can suffer as people and funds are diverted to firefighting, making it hard to plan and implement projects with our partners.
Each year, firefighting costs consume more of the Forest Service’s budget. In 1995, firefighting 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 the Forest Service’s budget by 2021. This means less money for other priority Forest Service programs and services, including recreation, visitor services, and fire prevention work that reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the first place — and less money to care for national forests that don’t experience fire.
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 decrease the severity of wildfire are being delayed, deferred maintenance is growing for recreation sites and critical infrastructure, and damaged roads are going unrepaired.
Whether the Siuslaw burns or not, trash cans may go unemptied, toilets go uncleaned, and we are forced to make hard decisions on whether we can safely keep roads and recreation sites open and implement restoration projects. The funding challenges directly impact our ability to provide excellent and safe visitor experiences and also get people to work in the woods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture 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.
The Forest Service deeply appreciates the ongoing work of Congress to address the way emergency wildfire suppression is funded. We must find a way to protect life and property in natural emergencies and also do the rest of the work we love — caring for the land and meeting the many different needs of the communities we serve, for the benefit of generations to come.