Our 154 national forests received some much needed attention and repair in the recently enacted omnibus spending legislation signed into law by the president on March 16, 2018. Our forests were literally burning up and the funding used to put out the fires was robbing the forests of the resources needed for better management.  In short, it was a vicious circle that jeopardized the health of a very precious national resource.

The solution included in the omnibus provides a new funding structure from FY2020 through FY2027. Beginning in FY2020, $2.25 billion of new budget authority is available to the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior.

The budget authority increases by $100 million each year, ending at $2.95 billion in new budget authority by FY2027. For the duration of the 8-year fix, the fire suppression account will be funded at the FY 2015 President’s Budget request - $1.011 billion. If funding in the cap is used, the Secretary of Agriculture must submit a report to Congress documenting aspects of fire season, such as decision-making and cost drivers, that led to the expenditures. The omnibus includes a two-year extension of Secure Rural Schools, providing rural counties approximately $200 million more per year.  It also provides Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act Reauthorization. The legislation also includes seven important forest management reforms, including:

•        Categorical Exclusion for Wildfire Resilience Projects

•        Healthy Forest Restoration Act inclusion of Fire and Fuel Breaks

•        20-year Stewardship Contracts

•        Cottonwood Reform        

•        Fire Hazard Mapping Initiative

•        Fuels Management for Protection of Electric Transmission Lines

•        Good Neighbor Authority Road Amendment

The overriding objective of the Forest Service's forest management program is to ensure that the national forests are managed in an ecologically sustainable manner. The national forests were originally envisioned as working forests with multiple objectives: to improve and protect the forest, to secure favorable watershed conditions, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use of citizens of the United States. Forest management objectives have since expanded and evolved to include ecological restoration and protection, research and product development, fire hazard reduction, and the maintenance of healthy forests. Guided by law, regulation, and agency policy, forest service forest managers use timber sales, to achieve these objectives.

Only 10 percent of the annual growth on the national forests is currently being harvested, however, leaving the other 90 percent to accumulate each year and become fuel for forest fires.  The forests are not being adequately thinned or treated to prevent bug infestation.  The legislation is intended to fix this problem.

“The fire funding fix, which has been sought for decades, is an important inclusion in the omnibus spending bill and I commend Congress for addressing the issue,” said Secretary Sonny Perdue. “Improving the way we fund wildfire suppression will help us better manage our forests. If we ensure that we have adequate resources for forest management, we can mitigate the frequency of wildfires and severity of future fire seasons. I thank Congressional leaders, with whom I've frequently discussed this issue.”

Until the funding solution was achieved, the fire suppression portion of the US Forest Service (USFS) budget was funded at a rolling ten-year average of appropriations, while the overall USFS budget remained relatively flat.  Because fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the ten-year rolling fire suppression budget average kept rising, consuming a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year. This increase forced the agency to take funds from prevention programs to cover fire suppression costs.  In addition, hunting, fishing, and other recreational programs were cut to cover the costs of fire suppression.

Last year, wild land fire suppression costs exceeded $2.5 billion, making it the most expensive year on record. The USFS confronted wild land fires last summer that started in the Southeast and continued through the year in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Intermountain West and Pacific Northwest.  At peak season, more than 28,000 personnel were dispatched to fires, along with aircraft and other emergency response resources. Since taking office, Perdue has worked diligently to address the issue and ensure both fire suppression and prevention efforts receive the proper funding they need.

Every major piece of legislation enacted with bipartisan support is the result of a huge effort by many individuals and organizations.  In this case, the Federal Forest Resources Coalition (FFRC) deserves special recognition for its tireless effort over many years and several Administrations.  They were often the communication link between Republicans and Democrats in Congress and reached out to environmental organizations and all stakeholders to enlist support. 

“FFRC has been on the front lines trying to enact a comprehensive bill since 2014,” said Executive Director Bill Imbergamo. “At times, it seemed like Congress wasn’t interested in addressing these issues. Our members and our partners kept up a steady drumbeat on the need for reforms, and our patience has finally paid off.”

Under current law and approved forest plans, the Forest Service may harvest 6 billion board feet (bbf) of timber each year.  However, less than half that number is being harvested.  The goal under the legislation is to increase the size of the timber program to 3.4 bbf, then 3.7 and 4 bbf.  This would improve the health of the forest system, improve the environment and put people back to work at the same time. Let’s hope it works.

About the author: Marshall Matz practices law at OFW Law in Washington, D.C. mmatz@ofwlaw.com