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.