Forest Service funds meant for fire prevention, should not go towards firefighting
for The Fence Post
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Sept. 14 that wildland fire suppression costs for the fiscal year have exceeded $2 billion, making 2017 the most expensive year on record. Wildfires have ravaged states in the west, Pacific Northwest, and Northern Rockies regions of the United States this summer. As the Forest Service passed the $2 billion milestone, Perdue renewed his call for Congress to fix the way the agency’s fire suppression efforts are funded.
“Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent — or maybe even more — which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management,” Perdue said. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires. It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on. That’s wrong, and that’s no way to manage the Forest Service.”
Montana is quite literally on fire with 45 active fires listed by authorities, totaling nearly 325,000 acres currently burning.
While the fires have been eclipsed by news of hurricanes and flooding in the southeastern U.S., the effects haven’t gone unnoticed by those in surrounding states under smoky skies, those attempting to secure and distribute funding to battle the blazes, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Perdue urged Congress to address the ways in which the U.S. Forest Service is funded to ensure that funds meant to be used to mitigate and prevent fires are not used to fight fires. This system, Perdue said, exacerbates the lack of funding within the department. Perdue pointed out to Congress that he would prefer they “treat major fires the same as other disasters and be covered by emergency funds so that prevention programs are not raided.”
Perdue went on to express his concerns about the funding of the service though he was clear that he believes the correct leadership and right people are in the department.
“I believe that we have the right processes and the right procedures of attacking and fighting fires,” he said. “But if you don’t have the resources and the means of dependable funding, that’s an issue.”
Montana has spent $53.7 million battling fires in what has been a historically dry and deadly fire season. According to a report in the Helena Independent Record, state lawmakers cut approximately $30 million from the $62 million fire fund in order to fund a state government rainy day account. The account was meant to activate only if state revenues were lower than anticipated, which they were, triggering the account to be activated in July.
The remaining $32.5 million fire fund has since been depleted, leaving the Department of Natural Resources budget to foot the bill. The state applied for aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an agency also reacting to the nation’s hurricane stricken areas.
Montana has applied for and received funding for FEMA grants for both the Lodgepole Complex fire, which has since been contained after burning 423 square miles, and the still active Lolo Peak fire. The grants ensure that the state will receive reimbursement for 75 percent of costs for each fire. The state has applied for and been turned down for other FEMA grants, according to a report by the Flathead Beacon newspaper, as the emergencies fail to meet criteria based on too few infrastructures facing destruction.
According to the Helena Independent Record, nearly 1,700 fires statewide have burned nearly 1.1 million acres this year. These numbers follow last winter’s challenging weather in some areas that was followed by a drought, leaving much of the state in severe and even extreme drought conditions.
Many of the fires have burned both private and public lands that ranchers and cattle producers depend upon for their livelihood. Travis Brown, a Sand Springs, Mont., rancher experienced the Barker Fire, a part of the Lodgepole Complex Fire, as it roared through the LO Cattle Company.
“It’s not like someone losing their house,” he said of the pasture lost. “But it’s crippling to these ranches because they had a plan in how they were going to utilize their pastures and everybody was affected differently.”
Severe drought coupled with losing approximately one-third of the ranch’s grass, Brown was forced to move cows to another property and make management decisions framed through the lens of loss.
“We’re taking cows to the CMR Wildlife Refuge which is providing a lot of challenges we’ve never faced,” he said. “Not only do we have to get them there but also deal with country you’ve never really seen before. It’s not like having cows on your own place.”
The refuge also suffered the loss of fences during the fire and that, paired with the unfamiliar pastures has proven a challenge as the cows want to drift back to familiar pastures and water sources.
“We’re having a heck of a time keeping cows there,” he said. “We’ve had to trail them back up there. They don’t know where the water is, they don’t know where the good feed is and how to use the country when they’re in the same pastures they’re used to. They’re just as displaced and lost feeling as we are.”
While cattle losses have been minimal for Brown, he was forced to wean calves at only about 350 pounds shortly after the fire was under control. The ranch lost about 45 miles of fence which, at an approximate value of $10,000 per mile, has been a formidable loss. The rebuilding process, Brown said, would have been impossible without the help of the local community and many others who have provided aid.
“That last day of the fire there was, like, a 1,000 firefighters that showed up,” he said. “There were fire trucks with Ohio on the door and Denver and Kansas and Laramie, Wyo. There were fire trucks from everywhere. I don’t now if they were paid or not but they came.”
With the traditional September end of the fire season upon Montana, hopes are that temperatures will cool and bring precipitation, extinguishing fires, bringing relief to ranchers and improving often dangerous air quality.
“Fires will always be with us,” Perdue said. “But when we leave a fuel load out there because we have not been able to get to it because of a lack of funding, or dependable funding, we’re asking for trouble. We’re asking for disasters, year in and year out. And that’s what we hope to get fixed.” ❖