Letters from the West

Report: Projects to reduce fire danger were canceled to provide firefighting funds

A $180,000 project designed to make forests around communities healthier and more fire-resistant was canceled in 2013 in Idaho because the dollars went to fighting fires instead.

The “State and Private Forestry Redesign” project, developed in partnership with states and other groups to improve forest resilience on private and state lands, was one of more than a dozen projects cut, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday in a report showing how limited federal firefighting budgets have impacted states over the last two years.

The report has examples of how funding for local wildfire preparedness, forest restoration and other activities in nearly every state across the country has been used to fight fires when budgets did not cover firefighting costs. The Sawtooth National Forest, for example, was unable to meet its commitments to control noxious weeds and reduced its hazardous fuels and wildlife habitat treatment projects at a time when it might be the most flammable forest in the state.

USDA released the report to promote the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson introduced in the Senate and the House. The Obama administration has supported the bill's approach, which would set aside an emergency fund, similar to other natural disasters, to cover costs for the most catastrophic of wildfires.

"With longer and more severe wildfire seasons, the current way that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior budget for wildland fire is unsustainable," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The wildfire season is 60-80 days longer and burning twice as many acres as compared to three decades ago. In the early 1990s, the Forest Service spent less than 15 percent of its budget on fire suppression. Today the agency spends 40 percent or more for fire suppression.

A May report showed that the median projected cost of fighting fires is nearly $1.8 billion this year, more than $470 million over the Forest Service's and Interior's firefighting budgets. Costs could reach as high as $1 billion more than the agencies currently have budgeted.

During 2012 and 2013, the Forest Service had to transfer $440 million and $505 million respectively from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. Over the last 12 years, a total of $3.2 billion was shifted from other programs that accomplish important forest management objectives.

Here’s what happened in Idaho: