Wildfire Management Money Grows on Trees

Forest Service fire employees have doubled since 1998; nonfire employees have diminished by almost half.

As modern wildfires burn hotter and more intensely, the United States Forest Service budget has spiraled out of control to fight them. A shot in the arm of resources for the Forest Service would let it get ahead of the high-severity wildfire problem, grow jobs, and decrease future wildfire costs.

I.     Wildfire conditions are causing more, high-severity wildfires over time.

Seventy years of suppressing forest fires and eighty years of removing the largest trees in the forest have created forest conditions that encourage high-severity wildfires.[1] High-severity wildfires can burn so hot they can make the soil sterile.[2] But they threaten not only natural resources. As more people move into the Wildland Urban Interface, those wildfires threaten more homes, infrastructure, and property built on or forests.[3] Hindsight shows the Forest Service managed the national forests to encourage high-severity wildfires. Humans created the wildfire problem, and humans have responsibility to fix it.

In 1935, the Forest Service adopted the “10 AM Policy” after two seasons of severe fires killed several firefighters and burned more than 500,000 acres.[4] Under that policy, it sought to suppress wildfires completely “before 10 o’clock on the next morning.”[5] Without cycles of wildfire, tree stands grew denser.[6] Without cycles of wildfire, small trees and bushes spread and act as “ladders” that wildfire climbs into the tree tops, or crowns.[7] Once in the treetops of dense stands, wildfire can travel tree-to-tree, and firefighters have great difficulty stopping them.[8]

The 10 AM policy lasted almost forty years.[9] It allowed tree limbs, branches, pine needles, and other plan material to pile up on the forest landscape.[10] In 1972, the Forest Service began allowing some fires to burn, and it reintegrated fire as a management tool over the next decades.[11] While the policy may have ended, the ramifications continue to echo. That policy left the national forests at high risk of high-severity fire.

II.  Infuse the forest management agencies with resources to get ahead of the problem.

The Forest Service faces a downward spiral of higher-severity wildfires as the wildfire budget consumes the money the Forest Service would spend managing the forest to reduce wildfire risk.[12] Just as wildfire events are increasing in severity and the Forest Service needs resources to get ahead of the problem, it is losing those resources. It will never catch up this way. Unnatural wildfires will continue scarring the national forests. Allocating additional resources now will turn the tide. It will increase national forests’ resilience to fires, grow jobs, increase tax revenues, and lower future firefighting costs. That change in policy will pay for itself.

III.        Congress redirects management money to fight forest fires.

Congress routinely takes money from the non-firefighting budget for the firefighting budget, and that prevents the Forest Service from treating the land to reduce the risk of wildfires.[13] In 1995, for comparison, wildfire fighting consumed 16 % of the Forest Service’s budget.[14] Now, it takes half, and by 2025, it will consume over two-thirds.[15]

Diagram showing fire suppression costs increasing from $1.1 million in 2012 to $1.8 million in 2016.That firefighting money comes from the non-fire budget, which includes the actions that reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Thinning the forest will help prevent fires from reaching the crowns and will reduce competition for water and sunlight among the remaining trees. Thus, proactive work would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires while strengthening the remaining trees and providing more jobs and timber resources.[16]

Tree stands have become much denser in the present.
Past to present stand density demonstrative

IV. If the Forest Service could set up the treatments, preventing wildfire will pay for itself.

If the Forest Service had more management money, it could design and analyze the environmental effects of more projects. More projects would remove wildfire fuels while right-sizing forest stands to make the trees in them more healthy. Healthier forests reduce wildfire severity.

Treating the forest to decrease the risks of extreme wildfire will often pay for itself. Instead of paying to complete the work with additional net taxpayer dollars, the timber’s market value would pay for timber companies to complete the work. The Forest Service often packages timber sales, so that the timber company removes downed trees, limbs, brush, and other wildfire fuels while making a small profit on removing some larger trees. That forest management work provides timber jobs and more timber for a vanishing number of lumber mills.

Because the Forest Service spends so much more on fighting wildfires, it spends 24 % less on (a) managing the trees, wildlife, and watersheds and (b) restoring those resources after wildfires.[17] Reducing the non-fire budget reduces the Forest Service’s opportunities to make forests resilient to wildfire while releasing wildfire to play its natural role.[18]

In one recent year, activities on National Forest System lands generated over $36 billion and supported nearly 450,000 jobs.[19] The Forest Service’s diminishing management resources puts those economic benefits at risk. Giving the Forest Service a shot in the arm of resources to manage the national forests for fire risk will attain multiple goals. It will increase national forests’ resilience to fires, grow jobs, provide timber for lumber mills, increase tax revenues, and lower future firefighting costs.

V.   Conclusion

Forest Service policy from the 1930s has created forest conditions that create high-severity wildfire. Wildfires burn more often more severely because of the ladder fuels and other tree branches and fuels on the ground. Climate change only makes the forest more explosive.

If Congress gave the Forest Service a brief infusion of resources, the Forest Service could treat more acres in the short term and save wildfire expenses in the long term. Treating more acres would provide jobs and forest product resources in the middle term. None of this would cost additional taxes; instead, the treatments would use the timber value on the forest and the increased tax revenue on wages and income would pay for the additional management.

By taking advantage of this opportunity, the United States can better conserve its forest resources for future generations while improving economies in western states now.

VI. March 2018 Follow-up

Congress gave the Forest Service some relief from the stresses of wildfire fighting, but not much. In March 2018, it passed the Wildfire Suppression Funding and Forest Management Activities Act.[20] That statute capped the amount of money the Forest Service would spend on fighting wildfires, so it could focus its budget managing the federal forests proactively.[21]To the extent wildfire fighting costs exceed that amount, the Forest Service can apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The statute set the cap at the average of the ten prior years’ wildfire fighting costs. That still leaves the Forest Service without sufficient management dollars to get ahead of the problem.

[Updated March 31, 2019]


[1] Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, Fire and Fuels: We Need a Public Lands Policy Debate, Speech to Cal Poly Seminar: Changing Fire Management and Policy (March 6, 2006), available at https://www.fs.fed.us/speeches/fire-and-fuels-we-need-public-lands-policy-debate.

[2] David Bischel & Jeff Bowman, Dead forest trees threaten public safety, San Diego Union-Tribune (July 27, 2016), available at http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/sdut-utbg-wildfires-drought-trees-2016jul27-story.html; Michael Upchurch, In ‘Land on Fire,’ author tracks the rise of mega-wildfires in the West, The Oregonian (May 22, 2017), available at http://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2017/05/land_on_fire_gary_ferguson.html (citing Gary Ferguson).

[3] U.S. Forest Service, The Rising Cost of Fire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work 3 (Aug. 4, 2015), available at https://www.fs.fed.us/sites/default/files/2015-Fire-Budget-Report.pdf.

[4] Quoted in Julie K. Gorte And Ross W. Gorte, Application Of Economic Techniques To Fire Management—A Status Review and Evaluation 2-3, Forest Service, USDA (June 1979), available at https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_int/int_gtr053.pdf (“The approved protection policy on the National Forests calls for fast, energetic, and thorough suppression of all fires, in all locations, during possibly dangerous fire weather. When immediate control is not thus attained, the policy then calls for prompt calculating of the problems of the existing situation and probabilities, of spread, and organizing to control every such fire within ‘the first work period.’ Failing in this effort, the attack on each succeeding day will be planned and executed with the aim, without reservation, of obtaining control before 10 o’clock on the next morning.”).

[5] Quoted in id. at 3.

[6] Id. at 2.

[7] U.S. Forest Service, Influence of Forest Structure on Wildfire Behavior and the Severity of Its Effects 1 (Nov. 2003), available at https://www.fs.fed.us/projects/hfi/2003/november/documents/forest-structure-wildfire.pdf.

[8] Id.

[9] Geoffrey H. Donovan & Thomas C. Brown, Wildfire Management in the U.S. Forest Service

A Brief History, U.S. Forest Service (Natural Hazards Observer July 2005), available at https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals/pnw_2005_donovan003.pdf.

[10] Influence of Forest Structure on Wildfire Behavior 1 (“Excluding fire from the natural cycle has resulted in a buildup of flammable plant materials across large areas of the forest landscape.”).

[11] See id. at 3.

[12] U.S. Forest Service, Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Overview 6 (Feb. 2016), available at https://www.fs.fed.us/sites/default/files/fy-2017-fs-budget-overview.pdf (“Dollars taken from nonfire programs for fire suppression interrupt projects and activities that pre-emptively reduce the risk of catastrophic fires, restore forest health, protect communities, and deliver a multitude of other values.”).

[13] Id. at 3; Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Overview 6.

[14] Rising Cost of Fire Operations 2.

[15] Id.; Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Overview 6.

[16] Influence of Forest Structure on Wildfire Behavior 1.

[17] Rising Cost of Fire Operations 8.

[18] Id. at 3 (“non-fire activities are often those that improve the health and resilience of our forested landscapes and mitigate the potential for wildland fire in future years.”); Influence of Forest Structure on Wildfire Behavior 1.

[19] Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Overview ii.

[20] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-141, Div. O, Sec. 101, (Mar. 23, 2018).

[21] See Tester Secures Major Public Land Wins for Montana (Mar. 21, 2018), available at https://www.tester.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=6038.

1 thought on “Wildfire Management Money Grows on Trees”

  1. Pingback: Jared Pettinato: Turn the Supreme Court West to Decrease Extreme Wildfires (Guest Post) – The Montana Post

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