Senator Leahy (I-VT) released yesterday a sky-is-falling analysis of what would happen to federal agencies and programs if Congress adheres to Trump’s budget outline, which calls for cutting non-defense discretionary spending by $54 billion below sequestration levels. Here’s Leahy’s analysis of what the budget cuts could mean to the Forest Service:
Forest Service Firefighting: If the Forest Service is cut by 13 percent it would mean a cut of $417 million from the FY 2016 enacted level for wildland fire management. This would directly impact preparedness and suppression of forest fires. A 13 percent cut to fire preparedness programs would translate to a loss of 1,300 firefighters, 117 fire engines, 15 helicopters, and 3 aircraft. These reductions could have the unintended consequence of actually increasing firefighting costs. Due to the current level of assets, the Forest Service has a 98 percent success rate on initial attack against fires. With fewer assets the potential for more escaped fires increases, which means increased suppression costs. If the Forest Service wildland fire management account were to be held harmless to the 13 percent cut, it would mean large cuts to the rest of the agency. Holding firefighting harmless would result in a 30 percent cut to the Forest Service’s non-fire accounts, or $736 million from FY 2016 enacted. Due to the Forest Service’s primary responsibility. to manage the health of the national forests, at that level of spending, Research, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Forest Legacy, and grants to states could be abandoned. The Forest Service would likely prioritize restoration work to mitigate the risk of catastrophic fire – which is increasing due to climate change – and close campgrounds, shut down road access, stop maintaining trails, and reduce visitor services that are essential to hunting, fishing, hiking, off road vehicles, and other recreation activities.
Leahy thinks spending money on firefighting is the key to high initial attack success. Forest Service researchers say he’s wrong: “Achievement of these [high initial attack success] levels is often hailed as extraordinary success, but, as we explain here, environmental factors alone (e.g. weather, fuels, terrain) will tend to constrain the majority of wildfires to < 300 acres, regardless of suppression activities." If the cost cutting becomes real, will the Forest Service have the guts to admit that it can just as effectively respond to fire ignitions with much less money. Or will the agency jettison its national forest system management, research, and conservation missions altogether and double down on chasing fire dollars.