USDA official, Wyoming State Forester: Fund wildfire fighting like other disasters

The next federal spending bill should establish a new way to pay for fighting ever-more-severe wildfires as the cost of mobilizing fire trucks, helicopters, air tankers and hundreds of firefighters burns through more than half of the U.S. Forest Service budget, a top USDA official said this week.

In a section of Medicine Bow National Forest between Cheyenne and Laramie in southeast Wyoming, federal and state forest officials have been working together to clear out built-up vegetation that could fuel a major wildfire. A combination of machinery and prescribed burns will do the work.

Such projects stand to lose funding at least temporarily whenever the Forest Service has to raid non-firefighting accounts to pay for firefighting needs, USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie said. "Congress typically pays us back. But we lose a season. We disrupt projects," he said.

To avoid the sort of devastating, out-of-control fires that can threaten homes and businesses, the Forest Service thinned more than 4.6 million acres of forest lands in 2014. That was up 9 percent from 2011 but might not be matched this year, according to the Forest Service.

Cooperation between state and federal agencies and private landowners can help see through such projects on the vast scales needed to address problems such as the beetle infestations that have killed millions of acres of Western forests since the 1990s, Medicine Bow National Forest and Wyoming State Forestry Division officials said.

"We've always worked together. We're just trying to work together and forget about the fence for a minute. What's the right thing for the forest?" Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said.

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