Still Reading Those Tea Leaves

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.

11 thoughts on “Still Reading Those Tea Leaves”

  1. Of course, some (misguided) people still insist that it is cheaper to let fires burn, as well as “more natural”. Then again, some other people want to keep a cap on “acres burned”, through not funding the ‘Let-Burn’ program. As long as more money is funneled into fighting fires, from other programs, it doesn’t add to that ‘awful’ deficit spending number. If wildfires are ‘funded’ with disaster dollars, the deficit will grow. THAT is why Republicans won’t vote for full “wildfire spending”, without some concessions from the far left.

  2. Now if we could just predict with some level of accuracy/certainty where starts will be held to less than 300 acres by environmental factors and where they won’t…

    • Tubamom — We can and do. For example, the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab’s FSPro. This model predicted accurately, a couple of weeks away, where the 2015 Wolverine Fire would cease its advance down the Entiat River valley (that didn’t keep the Forest Service from logging a 700-acre, 20-mile contingency line through designated critical habitat six miles away).

      Here’s a nice summary of the state-of-the-art. These tools are being used now on real, live fires.

  3. Thanks for posting those interesting questions Andy.

    Does anyone else get the impression that the Forest Service says that it needs to fight fires because it can’t harvest timber the way it wants/used to? Does anyone think that our forests unhealthy because we don’t cut down enough trees?

    It seems like the Forest Service is facing an existential/transitional crisis. What if we stop funding the majority of fire fighting and use the science that utilizes the HIZ instead of trying to rationalize a timber sale with the outdated Wildland Urban Interface model? We could probably save a lot of money.

    I am hopeful that one day our policy makers will be honest and stop motivating people with fear.

    If you live in the West please acknowledge that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, climate change is probably exacerbating the issue and we need people to take responsibility if they want to live in the woods.

    • John

      A) “Does anyone think that our forests unhealthy because we don’t cut down enough trees?”
      You must have been asleep – or have selective memory – YES! – Some of us have explained the validated science countless times – Our Federal Forests are in very unhealthy conditions due to policies that are based on emotions without any established scientific support. Policies that most enviros espouse are not sustainable and are contrary to their stated goals of protecting our forests. Here is a quick review of what you have already been told but chose to ignore.
      – 1) Plant Physiology 101 clearly states that overly dense stands are fighting for limited resources (even more so in drought and global warming). As a result the plants loose their vigor and are more susceptible to insects and disease and less able to fight off an attack.
      – 2) The Physics of fire dictate that where trees are close together and fuels are sufficient and dry enough the chances of an ignition turning into a catastrophe are greatly increased.

      B) “If you live in the West please acknowledge that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem”
      Fire is a natural part of the forest ecosystem in the US South just as surely as in the West. What you have also chosen to ignore is that nature manages by catastrophe. Trained, Licensed and Experienced forest management moderates the extremes that nature goes to and thereby provides for more sustainability of forests and the species that depend on them. That is why good, certified forest management in compliance with the intent of laws and with continuously improving best management practices uses harvesting to provide less density and uses controlled burns when and where appropriate in order to reduce catastrophic loss.

      C) “fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, climate change is probably exacerbating the issue and we need people to take responsibility if they want to live in the woods.”
      – 1) Not “probably” – As I explained above, climate change in terms of drought and warming DOES EXACERBATE the issues and based on fundamental science dictates the need for even more forest management than in cooler&/more moist times.
      – 2) You got one right – If you want to live in the woods, you better be willing and able to provide a defensible perimeter without counting on outside help to protect the things that you hold dear.

      D) I too am hopeful. I am hopeful that one day our citizenry will realize that the fear mongering of enviros and their opportunistic lawyers (without the required knowledge and experience and devoid of a license to practice forestry) have sold them a false bill of goods and exacerbated the damage to their beloved forests and endangered species.

        • John

          Fear mongering is from the “sky is falling” enviros who use opportunistic lawyers to fight forest magagement practices designed to improve forest health and reduce risk of catastrophic loss. Yet the same enviros don’t mind that excessive catastrophies do more damage to the sustainability of all species. Their ignorance and pride lets them strain at the gnats of others but swallow their own camels whole. Only by looking at the big picture (integrated landscape level planing) with a deep understanding of the involved science can we coordinate our activities in order to keep from working at cross purposes.

          The words “catastrophic loss” come from the dictionary and are used by people like myself who have the knowledge necessary to recognize the root causes and are trying to get the enviros and their hired guns to take their self important rose colored glasses off and see the mess that their uninformed/misinformed, self defeating actions are causing.

          Your questions here seem to be either the result of not taking the time to understand what I said or they are pure legalistic/debate techniques to obfuscate. I may not be the wordsmith that you are but I believe that you either didn’t try to understand or tried hard to not understand. If that is true then it only shows your insincerity about improving the sad state of our federal forests.

    • “… fire is a natural part of the ecosystem…” This is a perfect example of the disconnect going on right now.

      Soooo, ALL kinds of fires are “natural” although “Humans sparked 84 percent of US wildfires…”??? Seems like someone is not observing reality here. You cannot pretend that fires, regardless of ignition sources, are “natural” and desirable. in this human-dominated world.

      • Larry,

        I didn’t say that human-caused wildfires are natural.

        Our ecosystems evolved with fire throughout time.

        Maybe the human-caused fires are starting to make up for all of the fires that the Forest Service has put out over the years?

        I’m going to plead ignorance here, but I fail to understand the significance of the difference in how a fire is started–fireworks or lightning?

        • If we are preserving an unnaturally-overstocked, fuels-choked forest in the hopes that it may burn ‘naturally’, that is not the way I would go, except for places where it is not economically feasible AND ecologically advisable. Certainly, there are some areas that meet both parameters? I wonder if there are GIS layers out there, showing just the areas where tractor logging would be effective. That could lead to a reduced timber base, and a lower ASQ.

          With a certainty of man-caused fires in our future, shouldn’t we be managing for resilience, as opposed to ‘doing nothing’? Yes, I do understand that some forests will continue to be fire-prone, without really an effective way to make them fire resistant. My experience on the Bitteroot NF showed me that several of the main species, especially in forests on northerly-facing slopes, are all quite flammable. If you thinned those out, there wouldn’t be much forest left. The Bitteroot’s forests seem more dependent on aspect.

  4. “High initial attack success” at 98%”? So it is that 2% that costs billions of dollars and burns millions of acres every year? From what I have seen the FS does believe fire is an important part of the ecosystem.
    I have it said to me, after a FS fire that burned up a over a hundred thousand acres and spending tens of millions of dollars, “I think we did a good job of reintroducing fire to forest.”
    From my perspective it’s seem that in early 90’s most all clearcutting and old growth timber harvesting was ended on federal lands. They then started “reintroducing fire on the landscape” and set about spending billions of dollars on fire, while at the same time burning up the same forest that was set aside for clear air, clean water, endangered species habitat. I also thought they wanted to protect the remaining stands or old growth timber, but it seems to not matter that millions are incinerated each year.


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