A while back, a commenter asked for (if I remember correctly) visions for the future of the Forest Service. I thought back to the book “193 Million Acres: 32 Essays on the Future of the Agency” edited by our own Steve Wilent (and with essays by many TSW writers and friends). It was published in 2018, which means we wrote our essays before that, and much has happened since. The Infrastructure Bill, Covid and Covid-Enhanced Recreation, the 10-year Implementation Strategy, and so on. So I asked the authors if they would be willing to share the main ideas of their essays, and any updating thoughts they had, in a post on TSW.
I’d also like to invite others to contribute to this series, which I’ll call 193 Million Acres Plus. I’d especially like to hear from current employees, and anonymous submissions will be accepted/encouraged because we’re interested in any ideas attributed to specific people or not. A final suggestion, please don’t just talk about the problems, dream and vision some solutions. And with that, to Andy Stahl’s 193+ essay.
From Timber Service to Fire Service: The Evolution of a Land-Management Agency
In 2017, the US Forest Service set an enviable record. For the first time in its history, it spent more than $2 billion fighting fires. The $2.4 billion spent in 2017 (exceeded the next year at $2.6 billion) is more than twice the Forest Service’s average annual spending during the 2000s and seven times the 1990s average. To put the increase into perspective, it’s double the government-wide increase in discretionary nondefense spending. Firefighting has gone from 15 percent of Forest Service spending in the 1980s to more than 55 percent today.
Why and how did this occur, and what are the implications for the Forest Service and our national forests? The answers are 1) because the Forest Service needed to replace rapidly declining timber revenue; 2) because it could; and, 3) budgetary casualties for everything else the Forest Service does.
In 1908, Gifford Pinchot asked Congress to authorize the Forest Service to borrow money from “any appropriation … for fighting forest fires in emergency cases.” Pinchot wanted his field foresters to be able to pay the needed men from locally available government money, from such sources as receipts collected from ranchers or from the occasional sale of timber, and not wait the several weeks or months for a proper check to be cut from the head office. A reluctant Congress agreed, although the authority it granted was less than Pinchot sought (Pinchot also asked to cover costs associated with non-fire emergencies, too, for example, replacing a washed-out bridge, but Congress refused). A parsimonious Congress also made sure the Forest Service accounted for every penny by requiring that “detailed accounts arising under such advances shall be rendered through and by the Department of Agriculture to the General Accounting Office.”
For the first half of the 20th century, borrowing from non-fire accounts to pay for wildfire suppression followed the model Pinchot outlined. Borrowing was minimal, because Forest Service local offices had little cash on hand to advance for firefighting purposes. The post–World War II logging boom changed the income statement, however. Annual logging revenue grew from $20 million between 1946 and 1950, to $140 million between 1961 and 1965. Harvest income climbed meteorically in the 1970s to almost $1 billion by that decade’s end. By the end of the 1980s, the Forest Service was regularly exceeding the $1-billion mark, with timber-harvest income peaking in 1989 at $1.3 billion.
Divvying up this financial windfall proved a challenge. A 1908 law allocated 25 percent of the cash to the state where the timber was cut; these funds were earmarked for building roads and financing schools. A 1913 law allowed the Forest Service to keep 10 percent for road construction and maintenance. Thus, 65 percent of the Forest Service’s timber revenue was returned to the US Treasury, where it would be available for Congress to spend as it saw fit. In the eyes of cash-strapped Forest Service managers who had done the hard work, this seemed an unfair, if not wasteful, outcome. Providently, a 1930 law called the Knutson-Vandenberg (K-V) Act offered a solution.
The K-V Act authorized the Forest Service to retain timber-sale receipts for reforestation and other improvement work on cut-over land. In the early years, when sale receipts were small, this authority provided modest revenue and was exercised conservatively. With the growth of logging, however, the K-V dollars retained grew in absolute and percentage terms. Through 1975, the Forest Service had deposited about 10 percent of timber-harvest revenues into its K-V fund. The K-V fund grew, but only proportional to the increased timber-sale level and associated cost of reforesting the increasing number of cut-over acres. Nonetheless, some states, especially Oregon, became concerned that the K-V fund’s growth was coming at the expense of the 25 percent of revenue to which states were entitled (states were paid 25 percent of receipts net of K-V withdrawals). In 1976, as part of the National Forest Management Act, Congress amended the revenue-sharing law to require that 25 percent of gross sale receipts, including the K-V charges, be paid to states.
From 1976 on, with the states’ 25 percent funds now protected, the Forest Service began diverting an increasing percentage of timber-sale revenue to its K-V fund, from 10 percent in the 1970s to 30 percent of every timber dollar by the end of the 1990s. The K-V fund grew accordingly, increasing from an annual average of $21 million in the 1960s, to $61 million in the 1970s, to $176 million in the 1980s, peaking at $269 million in 1993. In 1991, the Forest Service’s creative financing gurus began dipping into the K-V fund to pay for firefighting costs, too. After all, the Forest Service was using K-V to pay for a bit of everything else, why not firefighting? Pinchot’s 1908 law offered the legal loophole to do so, and the K-V cash reserves were huge, albeit also over-obligated to pay for future reforestation, a concern the General Accounting Office raised in the mid-1990s.
Timber Harvesting Decline
Then the wheels came off. The 1990s lawsuits aimed at protecting northern spotted owl habitat slashed logging levels by 90 percent in the productive Pacific Northwest states, which accounted for a 40 percent drop nationwide. Add in protections for the bull trout, grizzly, and the northern spotted owl’s California and Mexican cousins, and, with the exception of the small east-of-the-Mississippi national forests, the agency’s timber program all but died, dropping from a high of 12 billion board feet annually to an annual three billion board feet over the last 20 years. So, too, the K-V revenue stream dried up. The Forest Service faced a budget nightmare the likes of which it had never seen. Congressional appropriators had grown used to a substantially self-financed Forest Service. Firefighting costs had become no concern to the bureaucracy, which had grown accustomed to a substantial off-budget expense account.
The Clinton administration chose to backfill this gaping financial hole by doubling down on firefighting. In 2000, Clinton’s National Fire Plan provided the justification for a new national forest raison d’être that was all about fire, all the time. Put out fires, light fires, clear fire-prone brush, thin forests overstocked because of a lack of fire, repair forests and watersheds damaged by too much fire, restore fire-dependent ecosystems, write fire-management plans and community fire-protection plans, map wildland-urban interfaces and fire-regime condition classes, buy more fire trucks, lease more air tankers, hire more firefighters. Recruit non-governmental allies by linking fire to climate change (to enlist environmental support), and by linking fire to a lack of active management (to enlist timber industry support). For its own financial survival and to stave off painful cuts to its workforce, the Timber Service became the Fire Service.
This strategy proved astonishingly successful. Forest Service spending is greater than it has ever been. But it’s not the same agency as 30 years ago when timber ruled the roost. Half of the Fire Service’s workforce are firefighters; most are not college-educated. More than half of the Forest Service’s budget is spent fighting fire, a disproportion that exceeds the timber era. But, for a bureaucracy committed to its own survival and growth, it’s a remarkable success story.
The Forest Service, however, tells a different story. It claims that over-grown forests—a result of too much fire suppression—and a hotter climate justify its runaway firefighting costs. But those arguments don’t explain why other wildland firefighting agencies have not incurred the same galloping rate of cost inflation. California leads the nation in the growth of homes in wildland-urban interface zones. Although the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), which bears the cost suppressing wildland fires on private land, has seen its fire-suppression costs rise, its increases are much less than the Forest Service’s. CalFire’s four-fold rise since the 1990s is substantially less than the Forest Service’s seven-fold increase, and CalFire’s 30 percent increase in costs during the 2000s is less than one-third of the Forest Service’s 100 percent increase over the same period. The Department of the Interior, which manages 500 million federal acres compared to the Forest Service’s 156 million, has had firefighting cost increases of 3.3-fold compared to those of the 1990s, less than half the Forest Service’s seven-fold increase, and a 10 percent increase in the 2000s, one-tenth the Forest Service’s 100 percent rise.
Proposals to “fix” the Forest Service’s fire spending have focused on begging Congress for more money. These pleas were answered in late 2017 with half billion more dollars appropriated for firefighting. While not the “disaster spending” checkbook (unregulated by congressional spending caps) the Forest Service has sought, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Meanwhile, the steady shrinkage of money to manage recreation, fish, wildlife, and water continues.
The Forest Service’s firefighting costs will continue to go up so long as Congress is willing to pay the tab. Beginning in 2020, and for the first time in its history, the Forest Service had access to off-budget “disaster” spending authority. These spending increases will occur not because there are more fires—fire ignitions have gone down steadily on the national forests for the last 30 years. And not because more acres are burning—acres burned show no clear trend over the past century. The Forest Service will continue to spend more money fighting fires because fighting fire pays its bills.