The U.S. Forest Service will soon have to scale back some projects designed to help prevent wildfires so that it can meet the expenses of fighting this summer's round of fires.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that about $400 million to $500 million in projects will have to be put on hold in what has become a routine exercise toward the end of the fiscal year. He predicted that the money set aside strictly for firefighting will run out by the end of August.
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"When we begin to run out of money we have to dip into the very programs that will reduce the risk of these fires over time," Vilsack said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.
Some 30 large fires are burning their way through federal and state forests in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. With lawmakers back home for the August recess and the public's attention focused on those efforts, Vilsack is lobbying for an administration proposal to add $615 million to fight wildfires this fiscal year and next.
Lawmakers from both parties generally agree the current funding model is broken. They say it's self-defeating to curtail activities designed to prevent forest fires, such as thinning overgrown forests and clearing underbrush, to cover the full costs of fighting blazes that have become more destructive over the past decade. But there is disagreement about how to fix the problem.
The administration and some lawmakers have called for tapping the government's fund for battling natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes to pay for the most devastating forest fires. They say the change would not impact the government's response to other types of disasters.
The House Budget Committee, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, has said it would be better to work within existing spending caps to fully fund both the firefighting efforts and prevention work.
That would mean finding savings through other Department of Agriculture and Interior programs. House Republicans also argue that a bill they passed last year requiring greater timber harvesting on federal lands could help reduce the amount of money needed for fire prevention efforts. The administration opposed that bill saying it undermined several laws and rules established to protect the environment.
House Democrats overwhelmingly support efforts to treat the worst wildfires like other natural disasters. Several Republicans are on board, too. Vilsack said it's important to put the most devastating wildfires on par with other natural disasters. "And that's what a forest fire started by lightning most definitely is," Vilsack said.
Vilsack is also making the case that diverting money to fight forest fires isn't just a problem for the Western states. He said it forces officials to scale back forestry projects in every state.
Over the past two years, the Forest Service has transferred about $950 million from other accounts to battle fires, and over the past 12 years, the amount transferred totals about $3.2 billion.
According to the Forest Service, the transfer of money last year to fight fires led to, among other things, the cancellation of road maintenance in Arkansas' Ouachita National Forest, delaying the thinning of pine stands in Louisiana to improve habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, and canceling efforts to reduce hazardous fuels in New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest.