National Forest wildfires impact everyone

ESCANABA — The wildfires raging in the states of California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington are not only an ongoing catastrophe, the drifting smoke being carried to the east by the prevailing westerly’s is symbolic in that they are effecting other states and all combined will have a long term impact across our country.

The national forests are managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, covering 193 million acres in 44 states and territories representing 30 percent of all federally owned (controlled) lands. There are 154 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and eight national monuments managed by the Forest Service. They also manage 442 wilderness areas, encompassing more than 36 million acres of rare, wild lands for the American people. Various activities on lands managed by the Forest Service contribute more than $36 billion to America’s economy each year supporting nearly 450,000 jobs.

In assessing the value of the Forest Service, America’s forests, grasslands, and other open spaces are integral to the social, ecological, and economic fabric of the nation. People and the communities they live in depend on natural resources from the forests and grasslands for their livelihoods and well-being. The value of ecosystem services flowing from the nation’s forests alone has been estimated to range from $96.5 billion to $5.7 trillion annually, with benefits valued at between $303 and $17,857 for every American each year.

The national forests are a favorite of many members of the general public who take advantage of the many recreational opportunities that exist for the true outdoor experiences, access, citizen stewardship, environmental education, hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering of wild foods and other materials for personal use.

In the contemporary sense the economic value of the national forests that produce vast quantities of renewable natural resources, especially timber production, should be key in supporting the costs related to managing these vast lands. Unfortunately the process of planning treatments that include timber harvest often occupy an inordinate amount of time as many prescriptions are tied up in litigation by special interest groups. It is evident in how the Forest Service has difficulty in meeting harvest projections. In 2014, the Farm Bill included new language that authorized the Forest Service to partner with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Forest Resource Division in setting up timber sales within the national forests to bring success closer to planned quotas under the Good Neighbor Authority.

With shrinking federal budgets, it is increasingly difficult for the Forest Service to effectively manage the national forests. Along with that problem is the fact that, under the current financial structure, discretionary funding of the Forest Service in 2016 reached it’s highest point in a 10-year summary of appropriations. Mandatory and Supplemental/Cap Adjustments nearly tied all lows. From this budget, no commitment of long term emergency financial planning related to the cost of fire suppression (like those ongoing in the western states) is in place. That means when fires hit, no matter where, the cost is absorbed within the standing budget, and the Forest Service has been hit hard in recent times. Last year, fighting fires took 56 percent of the general budget and the thousands of fires being fought today could very well take more.

The cost of fire suppression listed in the 2017 Forest Service Budget ($873.9 million which is $62.9 million above the FY2016 enacted level) to fund 70 percent of the 10-year average for fire suppression, currently calculated at $1.248 billion. In addition, the proposed cap adjustment would fund the remaining 30 percent of costs of fire for the 10-year average as well as any costs incurred above the 10-year average (which are currently funded through transfers from non-fire programs). For FY2017, the total proposed cap adjustment is $864 million.

If you find this difficult to follow, don’t feel bad as this data is from the 52 page budget summary and there are actually books written to explain the Forest Service Budget process.

In essence, the Forest Service is expected to borrow from within it’s own budget in covering fire suppression. The intense fires happening out west with their drifting swells of smoke could very well trump the 2017 financial reconciliation plan and once again tap the system to further restrict progress of the many other statutory duties expected of those who work within the agency. The Forest Service has seen an exodus of a key staff and programs that used to be taken for granted as part of the free assistance offered to users of the national forests are now eliminated or delayed. Recent Congressional action has also required the Forest Service to recoup costs of some of the work they used to do for free. Once faced with estimates, user groups either abandon their plans or scramble to cover funding needs.

Another possible adjustment to how things get done in the national forests is to turn over control to the states in which they reside. While it’s not clear if the intent of ongoing legislative action would make the Forest Service decision process autonomous to local needs or that management would become the responsibilities of each state government.

If the movement is to bring immediate needs to focus, it should help streamline the process and be applicable to individual states, it would reduce an overbuilt nation wide blanket policy program. If it means abandoning the Forest Service and national forest system, it may very well create a dilemma that could overwhelm natural resource management in covering too much with too little the same way our government is handling the cost of fighting fires.

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Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Trails & Tales Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.