Paying for forest fires pre-empted lots of U.S. Forest Service work last year, according to a report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mine cleanup work in the Ninemile Ranger District and partnership arrangements with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks were among the western Montana jobs dropped in 2013 when the federal agency had to redirect $505 million of its annual budget for fire suppression.

The Forest Service also pulled $440 million away from its regular budget in 2012.

“With longer and more severe wildfire seasons, the current way that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior budget for wildland fire is unsustainable,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an email statement. “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.”

The Obama administration has proposed paying for wildfire in the same fashion the government covers other natural disasters like hurricanes or floods. That would allow the Forest Service to have more secure budgeting for its routine management and planning work. Currently, it must pull funds away from those tasks as fire seasons expand.

“Around this time of year, the national level has an idea of what they need to budget for fire and what the outlook is for the fire season,” Forest Service Region 1 spokesman Brandan Schulze said in Missoula. “That’s when they start saying, ‘OK, no more spending on things that aren’t already obligated for this year.’ ”

Projects that lose their money get back in line with the work scheduled for the following year. As the backlog grows, Schulze said, those stranded projects must compete for prioritization with new needs.

Forest restoration and management, research, state and private forest assistance, and fire-reduction efforts have been the most frequently targeted programs for budget shifts. Ninemile District Ranger Chad Benson said he had to delay environmental cleanup on the Kennedy Creek drainage, where tailings piles from old metal mines were leaching into the water system.

“Fire-borrowing never does you any good,” Benson said of the disruption to his budget triggered by fire needs elsewhere. “We’re hopeful we can get this project to the forefront in the next month or so. We do most of our work in the woods, but it’s hard to do that before June 15 because of the spring runoff conditions. And we’re kind of last on the list (as other parts of the country get wildfires earlier in the spring). By the time they get to us, there’s a lot of money that’s been spent.”

***

The complete list for Forest Service projects that got canceled or delayed by fire-transfer spending in Montana during 2013 includes:

• On the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, a gravel-surfaced accessible path was not constructed.

• The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway sign replacement project on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest was deferred, negatively affecting visitor experience and hindering wayfinding efforts of forest visitors.

• Forest planning efforts were delayed on the Flathead National Forest.

• Forest plan amendments for the Lewis and Clark, Lolo, Kootenai and Helena national forests for grizzly bear conservation strategy were delayed.

• Site investigation work at the Libby Asbestos Area on the Kootenai National Forest was delayed.

• Preparatory work for mine removal actions at Flat Creek and Kennedy Creek on the Lolo National Forest was delayed.

• National Environmental Policy Act analysis for grazing was not completed on the Gallatin, Custer and Flathead national forests.

• Numerous grazing projects were impacted in Montana. One mile of grazing allotment fencing was not maintained; allotment management activities, including three fencing projects, were delayed; the Hay Creek fence construction project to benefit range and watershed activities was not completed.

• A key partnership agreement with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was not completed.

• Road maintenance activities and dust abatement projects were deferred, directly impacting 400 miles of passenger vehicle road maintenance.

• Watershed restoration work was impacted because no seeds or materials were purchased.

***

And in 2012:

• A large mine cleanup and monitoring project at Beal Mountain was eliminated.

• Road maintenance on 75 miles of priority road previously resurfaced was canceled.

• Trail survey and design work was deferred.

• Purchase of supplies needed for trail maintenance and rehabilitation was deferred.

• Forest plan revision assessment work was delayed.

• Grazing permit administration was reduced.

• A pre-commercial thinning contract for 66 acres was deferred.

• Seedling orders were canceled.

• Supply purchases were deferred.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

(8) comments

Roger
Roger

These "longer and more severe" fire seasons don't appear so bad, compared to past fire seasons. For example, average annual acreage burned by wildfires in the U.S.was 39 million acres from 1930 to 1939, while that figure for 2010 to 2013 was only 6 million acres per year.

http://www.worldclimatereport.com/archive/previous_issues/vol7/v7n21/feature.htm

js350454
js350454

That is a not a good comparison relative to this article Roger. There are too many external influences on fire "severity" to compare the acres burned from 1930-1939 to the acres burned from 2010 - 2013. Which, according to your numbers, averaged 4.3 million acres/year in the 1930's and 6 million acres/year in the 2010's - I think and additional 1.7 million acres is a large amount of land to burn. These external influences include the average temps, humidity, precipitation, different fire management policies and tactics, location, etc....

MTSierra
MTSierra

js350454, Roger stated the average annual acreage burned during 1930-1939 was 39 million acres/year. The total acres burned in the last 4 years doesn't equal one year during the 30's.

js350454
js350454

This is a perfect example of why we need to vote the lunatics pressing for a sate takeover of federal land out of office!

Smilely
Smilely

Why does the Forest Service, DNRC or whatever other Einsteins of firefighting let these fires burn so long they turn into some huge months-long dragged-out project costing tens of millions of dollars to bring the under control. If I was in charge of fighting forest fires this would be my strategy: First I would fire every firefighter, get rid of every truck, every pick and shovel, every length of hose, every pension, all those cushy permanent, year-round full-time positions - sitting around doing nearly nothing nine months a year - get rid of all the expensive radios and satellite phones, get rid of all the planes and orange retardant and get rid of all the buildings housing all this wasteful junk and purchase about a half dozen super-cranes (helicopters that can pick up tractor trailers) to dump water on these fires when they are the size of my living room. Then near the end of the summer when temperatures begin dropping and humidity rises I would send ONE person back to the exact spot where the fire began and start the fire again allowing it to burn itself out when the first snow arrives. This way nature gets to do its thing and we do not end up with "road pavement" in the forest and our precious resources - whether for recreation or industry - totally destroyed. I have seen many of the fires that are fought long and hard and at great expense by firefighters end not by humans extinguishing them but because the natural elements brought on by the end of the season. I often wonder why these fires are left burning on their own before any attempt is made to put them out. Job security. It's a racket.

Kate55
Kate55

Thirty years ago almost all ranger districts had seasonal initial attack crews who drove pumper trucks and put out the small fires and mopped up the big ones so they didn't put of smoke for weeks I did that for nine summers. Alot of the crud in the air from the big fires now is actually dust from the bulldozers and heavy equipment I did that for nine summers. The jumpers put out the inaccessible ones Eventually they canned all the seasonals for money reasons, if you can believe that. .

The forests are much drier now - the soil, fuel, the brush trees, even the live ones The reason they are so much drier now is because the snow melt that they rely on melts out typically as much as two months early now So conditions are certainly more dangerous now.

Look for this: it explains a lot and it is not hard to read:
Testimony of Dr. Steven W Running before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Hearing on Wildfires and the Climate Crisis . November 1, 2007 Dr. Running is at the U of M. Deniers will recall that it is a crime to lie to Congress.
http://www.fusee.org/docs/ClimateChange/Steve%20Running%20testimony.pdf


MTSierra
MTSierra

Sounds like you just volunteered to be the ONE person to pack water and tools into that back country to put the fire out and restart it in the fall. If you think it is so simple go do it yourself. I would assume though if a fire was threatening your home you would want all the firefighters, fire trucks, helicopters, retardant, and other resources to protect your home.

Smilely
Smilely

MTSierra how many times do I need to tell you to take a basic, elementary school reading course? This is not the first time I've told you this, it has just been awhile - "purchase about a half dozen super-cranes (helicopters that can pick up tractor trailers) to dump water on these fires" - Now who ever said anything about going out alone and putting out a fire? And by the way, I am lucky if I see my home three months a year over the past twenty years (too busy managing wilderness areas) and I am a minimalist and could care less if my home burnt to the ground. It wouldn't be the first time I lost everything I own and I certainly hope it isn't the last - freedom's just another word for nothing else to lose.

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