On Feb. 12, as Congress was still finalizing a budget deal for 2018, the Trump Administration released recommendations for 2019’s federal budget, including significant cuts to state and private forestry programs.
As proposed, the budget would reduce overall funding for the National Forest System by more than $170 million, eliminating key programs from the State and Private Cooperative Forestry division including Urban and Community Forestry, Forest Legacy, Community Forests and Open Space, and Landscape Scale Restoration.
The National Association of State Foresters (NASF) swiftly responded with a statement expressing disappointment in the proposal, calling it a “detriment to the American people.”
However, Colorado State Forest Service Director Mike Lester says he’s not worried just yet.
“The president’s budget is just a recommendation,” Lester says. “Even this year (2018), the House [Committee on] Appropriations, what they are coming back with is different than the president’s proposed budget. We don’t worry because it’s just a suggestion. We worry about appropriations.”
Lester does admit the president’s recommendations “can represent a trend,” guiding the way political appointees view public lands and how the government will manage those lands.
Still, he says, the decision is left up to Congress, which has, according to Lester, typically pushed negotiations toward sensible funding for forestry programs.
For example, the president’s 2018 budget recommendations zeroed out funding for Urban and Community Forestry (a federal program that helps communities around the nation manage and restore forests), just as it does in the 2019 proposal, but the House and Senate never considered ending the program and negotiated a relatively small cut in its funding.
So while the president has suggested eliminating some key forestry programs, Lester doesn’t see it happening.
“The [president’s] administration might not be sure of the value of those programs, but the House and Senate are,” he says.
Of most concern to Lester is proposed wildfire funding. Nonprofit conservation organization American Forests echos Lester’s sentiments.
“While the administration’s budget proposed a slight increase in funds to reduce wildfire risk on America’s national forests, it does not propose a comprehensive fix to the wildfire suppression budgeting issue, especially regarding the erosion of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget to the rising costs of suppression.”
“It’s kind of stunning,” Lester says. “The U.S. Forest Service budget stays pretty flat from year to year. Part of budgeting for wildfire suppression is based on a 10-year average. That’s no big deal if the cost goes up and down every year, but that’s not the way it works now. It goes straight up. Each year a larger and larger portion [of the U.S. Forest Service budget] is being taken up by wildfire suppression. So the money available to states, money for private landowners, is less and less. Forest supervisors have less and less. The equivalent is running a factory by never maintaining your equipment; it just gets worse and worse.”
But some cuts to wildfire funding are proposed. According to the NASF, the federal Volunteer Fire Assistance program would be cut by nearly a fifth if the president’s recommendations are adopted.
Writing for Wildfire Today, career wildland firefighter Bill Gabbert takes aim at the president’s proposed cuts to wildfire-fighting aviation resources, cuts made “in spite of the fact that the number of acres burned annually in the United States continues to increase.”
Wes Rutt, a retired tree farmer and volunteer firefighter in Stove Prairie — about 20 miles west of Fort Collins — agrees that wildfire is the most important piece of the budgeting puzzle.
“There’s all sort of evidence that says working in forests before fire to mitigate damage is more cost effective than trying to suppress the fire,” Rutt says. “We live right in the middle of what was the High Park Fire. I was on the volunteer fire department when fire came through here. All sorts of people had done some work to their property; some had done extensive work, others none at all. There’s no guarantee that work you do and money that these funds may give you are definitely going to reduce the damage if the fire comes through at 50 miles per hour uphill. But they certainly can improve your chances to reduce your risks of losing your home and forest.”
Rutt says he lost about 70 percent of his private forestland. While the threat of wildfire may seem more existential to urban dwellers, Rutt says it’s just as real.
“If you’re an urbanite living in Fort Collins or Boulder and a fire happens up in the mountains, you’d say, ‘Oh, gee, look at how pretty that is, all those beautiful flames,’ but you’re not OK because when a big fire comes through it denudes the forest and denudes the water shed. Everybody gets affected when there’s a big fire.”
Like Lester, Rutt says this is just the beginning of negotiations and he believes Congress will ultimately approve a budget that’s more balanced than the president’s proposals.
“I’ve been around long enough to see budget negotiations go on,” he says. “It always starts with extremes. After months of negotiation you come up with a compromise you can live with.
“There’s a lot of calls for public money,” he adds. “We need it for all sorts of things. If a fire isn’t on your doorstep, the Forest Service isn’t necessarily the top priory for most people. I can understand that, but you have to think ahead and I hope with negotiations for the budget, cooler heads will prevail.”