State foresters to lawmakers: There’s a critical connection between wildfire funding, health of nation’s forests

By Whitney Forman-Cook

Seven state foresters visited with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday to express the importance of robust funding for state and private forestry programs and a permanent wildfire funding fix. These two priority issues, the state foresters explained, are directly connected and deserve Congress’ attention.

State forestry agencies, and the state foresters who lead them, leverage federal dollars provided through USDA Forest Service State and Private Forestry programs to protect the majority—nearly 500 million acres—of non-federal forestland in the United States.

To give just one example: the Forest Stewardship Program helps state forestry agencies equip 300,000 forest landowners annually with the information and knowledge they need to sustainably manage their forests for any number of benefits, including timber and forest products, wildlife habitat, renewable energy, and recreation. Non-commercial forestland owners that receive this forestry technical assistance are 2.7 times more likely to meet their management objectives and 2.4 times more likely to reforest their land compared to those who don’t.

Just about every year of the last decade, federal support for state and private forestry programs has been cut, in large part due to a worsening problem: wildfire.

Funding for federal wildfire suppression is appropriated annually by Congress based on the 10-year national average cost of fighting wildfires. In recent years, the 10-year average figure hasn’t covered annual suppression costs because the cost of fighting fires has increased dramatically as fire seasons have grown longer and more active. To cover each year’s suppression costs, the Forest Service has had to dip into its other accounts, like state and private forestry programs, to cover the suppression activities which haven’t been adequately budgeted for. In addition, Congress has elected to allocate more of the Forest Service’s overall budget to wildfire suppression at the expense of its other programs, including federal forest management and state and private forestry programs.

To fix the way wildfire suppression is funded, Congress must stop using the 10-year average. Instead, NASF recommends that either: (1) suppression of the largest wildfires be paid for with an account outside of the Forest Service’s annual budget, or (2) Congress caps suppression funding at a recent year’s total costs, and all costs incurred after the cap is reached are paid with “offline” funds (outside of the agency’s annual budget).

If Congress continues to short the Forest Service wildfire suppression funds by using the 10-year average calculation, the agency will be forced to continue raiding its other forest management programs—to the tune of $100 million annually. These cuts are a detriment to the nation’s forests. Without forest management and technical assistance programs, America’s forests are at a significantly higher risk of catastrophic wildfire, disease, and pests. These threats no know boundaries, often migrating from national forests to state and private forests and causing devastation in American cities and towns, wildlife populations and habitat, and forest ecosystems.

When sustainably managed, forests and trees can provide clean air and water, cost-saving green infrastructure, unparalleled recreational opportunities, green industry jobs, and renewable forest products in perpetuity. State foresters nationwide are hopeful Congress will replace the “10-year average” used to allocate suppression funding, and in doing so, help to ensure the health and productivity of our nation’s forests. Such a change couldn’t come at a better time.

Whitney Forman-Cook is NASF’s communications director. She can be reached by email at wforman-cook@stateforesters.org