Call it the U.S. Fire Service

Editor, the VOICE:

The costs to fight wildfires has risen so high that a pair of Montana’s senator suggest the U.S. Forest Service should be renamed “U.S. Fire Service.”

Senators Jon Tester (D) and Steve Daines (R) told the Billings Gazette in late August the rising costs are crippling the agency’s essential non-fire related work. Fire suppression costs now consumer over half of the Forest Service budget compares with 16 percent 20 years ago.

The lawmakers introduced legislation to appropriate $1.4 billion more to fight forest and range fires this year, but it died. Given our unfettered national debt and failure of federal revenue to keep pace with government spending, it is highly unlikely the Forests Service will see additional funds. It will continue to rob other programs to fight fires.

That means less money for restoration work in watershed, research and technical service, and programs that support thousands of recreation jobs which bring billions into rural communities.

Firefighting employment at the agency swelled from 5,700 in 1998 to more than 12,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, the non-firefighting staff has been chopped by 40 percent.

Forest road-building has been cut in half and deferred maintenance was cut 95 percent, the Gazette reports, even though $5.1 billion is urgently needed for dam repairs, roads and rural water and sewer projects.

There is another way Congress can infuse more money into the Forest Service budget, employ more workers in the woods and help cash strapped rural timber dependent counties—increase timber sales on federal lands.

In 2013, a bipartisan trio of Oregon congressmen Peter DeFazio (D), Kurt Schrader (D) and Greg Walden (R) drafted legislation which placed about 1.6 million acres of the 2.8 million acres covered by the bill in a state-managed trust focused on timber production. It also restored federal timber payments to counties because logging was restricted or tied up in court.

That bill died because President Obama threatened to veto it.

By Don Brunell