Congress Asked to Repay $636 Million for Wildland Firefighting Through Emergency Supplemental; Short Lifeline to Stewardship Contracting; Longer-term FY 2014 Solution Needed

Members of the U.S. Army fight the Black Forest Fire in Colorado

Pilots and crewmembers of the 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, go into the thick smoke to release water onto the burning fires in Black Forest, Colo., June 12, 2013. Credit: Sgt. Jonathan C. Thibault, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs Office, 4th Infantry Division/U.S. Army

Arlington, Va.; September 16, 2013 — A coalition of conservation, forestry, recreation and wildlife groups submitted a letter to Congress today supporting its interest in repaying FY 2013 fire transfers and urging an emergency supplemental that reimburses the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior $636 million for shortfalls in 2013 fire suppression money. The coalition expressed appreciation for this action by the House Appropriations Committee in their proposed Continuing Resolution released September 10, as well as a temporary extension for the stewardship contracting authority.

The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior ran out of money to fight wildfires in August 2013 and transferred money from other critical programs to cover the shortfall. Shortly thereafter, the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solutions called upon the House and Senate Appropriation Committees to repay fire funding transfers and back Stewardship Contracting in the FY 2014 Continuing Resolution. This coalition urges the Congress to use emergency-designated funds for these disaster expenses. Emergency funds will ensure that the available FY 2014 funding for other critical forestry programs is not reduced by cost overruns experienced during this year’s tragic fire season.

The coalition also strongly encouraged Congress to find a long-term solution that would preclude the need to borrow money to fight inevitable fires each year and disrupt critical forest programs that help people, water and wildlife. In FY 1991, fire spending accounted for roughly 13 percent of the total U.S. Forest Service budget, while in FY 2012 fire spending ate up more than 40 percent of the agency’s annual budget. Nine of the 10 most expensive seasons for fire suppression costs have occurred since 2000. Unfortunately, fire transfers are not a new phenomena, particularly at the U.S. Forest Service. From FY 2002 to FY2012, the agency transferred $2.8 billion from non-suppression accounts within the Forest Service. These transfers deplete non-fire accounts within the agency, halting important forest management activities, such as those that could help reduce wildfire risk and suppression costs in the future.

In addition, the letter requested a longer-term commitment to Stewardship Contracting beyond FY 2013. Stewardship Contracting was originally authorized in 2003 for 10 years and requires reauthorization in FY 2014 if the program is to continue. Authorized for 10 years in 2003, Stewardship Contracting allows the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to pay private contractors to restore forests and reduce wildfire risk. Since its inception, 1,269 stewardship contracts have been awarded that promote healthy forests, reduce fire hazards and increase watershed resilience on national forests, while expanding business and job opportunities.

Without a change, the current emergency fire funding structure is designed to fail. Congress can help the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior by providing them with the tools they need to succeed. Stewardship Contracting and a proper emergency fire funding structure are two critical tools for the agencies.

Letter signatories:

  • American Forest Foundation
  • American Forests
  • Federal Forest Resources Coalition
  • National Association of Forest Service Retirees
  • National Association of State Foresters
  • National Ski Areas Association
  • Ruffed Grouse Society
  • Society of American Foresters
  • Sustainable Northwest
  • The Nature Conservancy