The national fires burn

Livestock Industry Opinions
Jun 13, 2014

Grazing opportunities in the West are constantly going underutilized. Wild fire prevention has become a huge issue and the agencies responsible for fighting wildfires are taking money from Peter to pay Paul. Taking money from rang e improvement and forest management programs has actually fueled the huge wildfires we have experienced over the past decade, and it’s expected to get worse unless the federal lands are managed better.


In 2013 the United States Forest Service (USFS) had to transfer $505 million from other projects to pay for fire suppression. Last week the USFS published their Fire Transfer data, a list of non-essential projects that were canceled to pay for fire suppression. Items like range management, beetle kill removal, grazing permit administration and land acquisition have all been canceled.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who administers the USFS, said, “With longer and more severe wildfire seasons, the current way that the USFS and the Department of Interior (DOI) budget for wildland fire is unsustainable. Until firefighting is treated like other natural disasters that can draw on emergency funding firefighting expenditures will continue to disrupt forest restoration and management, research and other activities that help manage our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire.”

According to USDA, the wildfire season is 60 to 80 days longer and burning twice as many acres as compared to three decades ago. In the early 1990s the USFS spent less than 15 percent of its budget on fire suppression; now it’s over 40 percent. I would guess that the Feds see this situation as a climate change issue vs. a management issue.

It’s perplexing that the agency realizes that 30 years ago was a better time for wildfires, when they allowed more access to grazing livestock and allowed more timber harvests.

The Obama administration is thinking that they will just throw more money at the problem. They want to create an emergency fund and handle it the same as we do with hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. It’s starting to sound like the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

FEMA could join the land management agencies and have a say in how you run your livestock.

This all sounds great—wildfire will get more money to avert disastrous fires and the agencies continue to fund other conservation and management projects that should prevent wildfires. A May report showed that the median projected cost of fighting fires is $1.8 billion a year, $470 million more than the current USFS and DOI annual budget for wildfire.

The land management agencies have found their way into a pickle. The fires have become larger because the fuel loads are larger and there are more people living in and using the forests. Years of bad to no management has caught up to them. The agencies have all shown they are not very good managers and how could they be when they have no skin in the game? I’m sure there are folks who care but it’s different when you don’t have ownership.

This is where the states and counties come into play. These fire prevention strategies should become a more localized effort. An engaged local community would understand the fire danger and be able to enforce better prevention and mitigation programs; they have skin in the game.

The Northern Arizona city of Flagstaff is a perfect example. The city teamed up with the USFS to help clean up and better utilize the forest resource to reduce fire danger. Flagstaff even passed a $10 million bond issue to help pay for their forest health programs. They understand private property is at stake and they should help protect it. This is some fairly dynamic thinking, but logical.

Over the years it’s been the USFS and the DOI’s job to fight wildfires on public lands. There was a time when they wouldn’t accept any help. And there have been documented cases where federal firefighters have intentionally set fires to create work. Now that’s some twisted thinking.

We need the federal resources to tame the fire danger in the West and better management is the key.

Giving local governments access to federal funds to accomplish the important goals of the communities would be more responsive and productive. This is a situation where smaller government is needed to fight big fires by not allowing them to get big in the first place. — Pete Crow