Debt standoff makes Forest Service fight all fires

Rocker Barker with the Idaho Statesman has the full story here…excerpts below:

The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to ensure the Forest Service had enough money to fight fires without having to cut into programs to provide recreation, protect habitat and improve forest health.  But after Congress raided the fund established by the law during the 2011 standoff over the debt ceiling, and after further cuts this year, the fund is empty. That has the agency preparing to make cuts elsewhere as the fire season is hitting its peak in Idaho and just beginning in California.

The agency that manages 193 million acres nationwide and 20 million acres in Idaho foresaw the shortfall coming in May. It quietly ordered managers to fight every fire as soon as it starts, which it says goes against its own science and goals. It also required regional foresters to approve “any suppression strategy that includes restoration objectives,” wrote James Hubbard, Forest Service deputy chief for state and private forestry, in a May 25 memo. “I acknowledge this is not a desirable approach in the long run,” Hubbard wrote.

Today, just one fire nationwide, a blaze in the Teton Wilderness near Yellowstone, has received that approval. The Interior Department, which did not issue a similar directive, is letting one fire burn for restoration purposes in Yellowstone National Park.

Most scientists and fire managers agree that fire is a healthy and necessary part of the forest, and that fighting these blazes serves only to build up fuels and boost the size and frequency of fires that do turn catastrophic. Federal agencies still put out 97 percent to 99 percent of all fires that start….

The Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act, set up separate funds for the Forest Service where surplus firefighting funds in quieter fire years could be saved for big years like this. But Congress took $200 million from the fund in 2011 as a part of the deal to keep the government running in the debt-ceiling standoff. Congress took another $240 million in surplus funds in 2012. Before the FLAME Act, Congress passed bills to cover the extra cost of firefighting every year from 2002 to 2008. But with Congress divided and the pressure to reduce government spending growing, the chances for a supplemental spending bill this year are uncertain….

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