Don't let funding for US Forest Service go up in flames

21 August 2017

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USA - Last weekend’s headlines included wildfires in Montana burning so fiercely that residents had to be evacuated because of smoke hazards. The headlines also included the Freedom Caucus’s Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) insisting that further cuts in domestic discretionary funding were surely feasible. These seemingly disparate stories actually are two sides of the same coin. Our problems with wildfires sadly are all too typical of the problems grinding austerity has brought to many federal activities supported with non-defense discretionary funding.

If Congress had accompanied appropriations caps with clear decisions to reduce or eliminate significant government functions, they would represent plausible priority-setting. Unfortunately, lowering spending caps has become fiscal junk food.

Voting to cut spending sounds tough, but without the courage to tell constituents the federal government will do less, it rapidly leads to gimmickry. And little wonder: We just saw on a grand scale what happened when Republicans tried to sell simultaneous cuts in taxes (mostly for the affluent) and in health insurance.
Things rarely get that dramatic with non-defense appropriations, but several patterns of avoidance emerge. One is to defer needed maintenance and hope the funding crunch eases before something important breaks. Another is to find ways of promising the same money to two different activities and then feign surprise when one does not get the money it needs. A third is to argue that the perfectly predictable consequences of budget cuts result from mismanagement instead.

For many years, the U.S. Forest Service’s budgets have demonstrated all three approaches. Appropriators often give the Service less money for fire-suppression than it will likely need — and even that funding has typically come from raiding the rest of the Service’s budget. When firefighting funds do, indeed, prove inadequate, the Service “borrows” money from its other activities to meet excess fire-fighting needs. And then when the Forest Service lacks the staff to perform environmental reviews on all the logging projects the timber industry desires, critics ignore the budget cuts and blame environmental laws.

As decades of excessive fire suppression have left our forests vulnerable to more and more potentially disastrous fires, the combination of shrinking real non-defense discretionary appropriations, shifts from other activities into fire suppression, and fire-borrowing have hollowed out the Forest Service’s budget, leaving it increasingly incapable of carrying out core parts of its mandate.

From 1995 to 2014, fire-related costs swelling from about one-sixth of the Forest Service’s budget to more than half. Among the work sacrificed to fire borrowing were surveys necessary to approve logging projects, emergency infrastructure repairs, and attempts to wipe out nascent insect infestations before they could do irreversible damage.

Fortunately, in this small corner of the discretionary budget, we have some hope of escaping the quagmire. Bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) would end fire-borrowing by planning for major forest fires the way we do for other natural disasters. Some years, we largely “dodge the bullet” on major disasters and do not have to spend much responding to them; other years, we suddenly need considerable resources. Disasters therefore do not fit into the usual annual funding cycle: Even if the average level provided is reasonable, in some years it will sit idly (tempting some to spend it on low-priority projects) and other years it will be woefully inadequate.

Under the senators’ approach, routine fire-fighting will be funded the way it is now out of annual appropriations. But if a particularly hot season exhausts those funds, the relevant agency may request a presidential disaster declaration. If it is forthcoming, the agency may access funds from a special emergency reserve fund to protect vulnerable natural areas or human communities.

In an era of reactive policy-making, Sens. Crapo and Brown show a refreshing interest preventing destructive forest fires as well as responding to those that do occur.

They would require the Forest Service to set aside 30 percent of historic fire suppression spending for activities to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and increase forests’ resiliency against fire. This could include approving restoration-based logging projects to reduce the density of forests to their natural levels where needed. This will stop any fires that do start from exploding up to the forest canopy, where they can spread rapidly and become a major menace. If appropriators short-change these funds, they foreclose access to the emergency reserve, and the public will know just where to direct its anger.

Also refreshing is the senators’ focus on the real problem: funding. They eschew the opportunism of others, who seek to turn the crisis into an excuse to dismantle environmental laws.

Similarly straightforward solutions are not available for most problems caused by the mismatch between Congress’s desire for tough rhetoric on budget cuts and its willingness to speak honestly with constituents about the choices those cuts require. But when bipartisan cooperation brings us such a solution, we would be foolish not to embrace it.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.