President’s proposed FY18 wildland fire budget includes some reductions

Most wildland fire functions in Fiscal Year 2018 would remain flat or reduced a small amount if the President’s proposed budget is enacted by Congress.

Above: The President’s proposal for funding wildland fire in the U.S. Forest Service in Fiscal Year 2018. Source: USFS.

(Originally published at 5:40 p.m. MST November 9, 2017)

While the federal government keeps throwing additional billions of dollars at the Department of Defense to fund our adventures in countries on the other side of the world, the budget for the war against wildfire in our homeland would be cut in some areas while most functions would remain flat if the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 is approved by Congress.

In May the President proposed budgets for the Forest Service and the four primary land management agencies in the Department of the Interior: Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  However, Congress, as usual, has not finalized appropriations bills for these agencies for Fiscal Year 2018 which started October 1, 2017. The House passed a version in September, but the Senate has yet to take meaningful action.

The agencies have been operating on a continuing resolution (CR) which expires December 8. It is likely that some kind of showdown will happen around that date, with the worst case scenario being a government shutdown. Or, they could keep passing successive CRs for the rest of the fiscal year, which would lock the funding into the FY 2017 numbers. Of course, CRs were in effect for all of FY 2017. Apparently our elected Senators and Representatives think they have better things to do than fund the government.

If Congress actually does pass a funding bill for these land management agencies, the line by line details and numbers will most likely be different from the President’s proposals, but below we spell out what the administration would like to see happen this fiscal year that started October 1.

Forest Service

In the FS as a whole, the President would like to reduce the number of employees (jobs), cutting the number of staff-years by 5.7 percent. Wildland fire personnel in the FS would remain the same — a total of 10,000, including 67 Interagency Hotshot Crews, 7,940 other firefighters, 320 Smokejumpers, and 400 Fire Prevention Technicians. Fire Suppression would be funded at the 10-year average.

The exact numbers and trends are difficult to track because the Base 8 (the first 8 hours of a firefighter’s regular work day) will now be paid out of Preparedness rather than Suppression. And funds for Hazardous Fuels are shifting from fire funding to National Forest System accounts.

In 2017 the FS reduced the number of the largest helicopters, Type 1, from 34 to 28. The President aims to retain that smaller number. Type 2 and 3 helicopters would remain the same at 33 and 46, respectively. The two water-scooping air tankers in the FS would be eliminated completely, while they add one Single Engine Air Tanker, up from zero in 2017. The FS looked at the two years they had the scoopers as an experiment, even though they have been used successfully in Canada, France, Greece, and Spain for decades.

In 2002 the FS had 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. In 2017 they had 20, consisting of 16 Next Generation air tankers and 4 Legacy P2V’s. With the 50+ year old P2V’s now retired, the agency expects to have “up to 20” Next Gen air tankers in FY 2018.

The budget proposal includes funding for only one of the seven HC-130H aircraft obtained from the Coast Guard in December, 2013 that are supposedly being converted into air tankers. The one that has been used for a couple of years is still not completely transformed, and is using a borrowed pressurized Modular Airborne FireFighting System for dispensing retardant rather than employing a conventional permanent (but removable) internal gravity-powered tank.

The budget document has a rather cryptic sentence about air tankers:

Beginning in 2018, the Forest Service will transition to a full cost recovery business model for aviation utilized by cooperating agencies.

We asked a few Washington Office folks what that meant, and they either didn’t know or failed to respond to our inquiry. One person told us that unclear writing in the document could be the result of a changing of the guards and the reviewers not fully being in place at the Departments and the Office of Management and Budget.

The agency has always charged cooperating agencies for the use of FS aircraft, but it sounds like the price will increase. They may tack on in addition to the hourly rate, additional charges such as working capital fund fees that go toward purchasing replacement aircraft at the end of its life cycle.

The President wants to eliminate the agency’s $6,901,000 contribution to the Joint Fire Science Program  (JFSP) which receives its funding through the FS and the Department of the Interior (DOI). According to the budget proposal document:

The JFSP would focus on completing existing projects and standing down science exchange with managers. New research in the Smoke Management and in the Fuels Treatment lines-of-work would be eliminated, as would new research in the Emerging Management Needs initiative. General fire research in the agency would be conducted through the National Fire Plan and the Forest and Rangeland Research appropriations.

The Department of the Interior intends to cut their JFSP contribution in half, down to $3,000.

The web site for the JFSP describes their work as  “funding scientific research on wildland fires and distributing results to help policymakers, fire managers and practitioners make sound decisions”.

The total budget for all research in the FS would be cut by 16 percent, from $329 million to $276 million.

Department of the Interior

The 2018 budget request for DOI’s discretionary Department-wide Wildland Fire Management program is $873.5 million. This is a decrease of $118.3 million, or 12 percent, from FY 2017. It would mean a reduction in Full Time Equivalent employees (FTE) from 3,586 to 3,401, or 5 percent.

The number of “fire personnel” would be cut by 140 personnel (jobs) from 4,221 to 4,081, or 3 percent. Smokejumpers would be reduced from 145 to 140, or 3 percent, and engines from 610 to 605, or 1 percent.

The numbers of all DOI firefighting aircraft would remain the same, except single engine air tankers would be cut from 34 to 32, or 6 percent.

Department of the Interior Fire Preparedness funding for FY 2018
The President’s proposal for Department of the Interior Fire Preparedness funding for FY 2018. Source: DOI.

As stated above, the DOI’s contribution to the Joint Fire Science Program would be cut in half, to $3 million, while the FS will eliminate their share of funding the program.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Los Angeles Times op ed on reforming wildfire funding

Outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs.

Above: Wolverine Fire in Washington,  August 16, 2015. Photo by Kari Greer.

For several years the Obama administration and a few lawmakers have been been trying to convince Congress to change how wildfires are funded so that fire prevention, fuels management, and non-fire related programs in the federal agencies are not cannibalized to pay for emergency operations and the suppression of fires. There have been a number of these attempts but many have been hobbled by combining the proposals with unrelated provisions related to, for example, weakening or eliminating some environmental regulations related to timber harvesting.

The Los Angeles Times has published an op ed on the topic written by Senator Diane Feinstein and CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott. Below is an excerpt:

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“…In the face of climate change and drought, longer and more severe fire seasons are to be expected. But last year the United States also suffered more catastrophic fires. These fires are natural disasters, as destructive as many hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. But that’s not how the federal government treats them, or pays for them.

[…]

If it had been massive storms that caused [the] extraordinary devastation [seen in the fires in 2015], and their costs outstripped the budget for disaster response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies could access additional federal funding to pay for cleanup and recovery. In contrast, wildfire response remains subject to strict spending limits, regardless of a fire’s severity. Worse, outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight these fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs that remove dead trees and brush from forests.

This shortsighted practice means that as the Forest Service spends more on combating huge fires, it has less to spend on preventing them.

[…]

The agency must be allowed to pay for fighting extraordinary wildfires similarly to how FEMA and other agencies pay for disaster responses. The response to Hurricane Sandy did not come at the expense of routine maintenance on levees to prevent future floods. Likewise, the Forest Service’s firefighting costs should not come at the expense of routine brush clearance and maintenance that help prevent future wildfires.

Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress agree that this problem needs fixing. Last year’s Senate version of the appropriations bill to fund the Forest Service provided a simple solution: It would have allowed the agency to access a separate stream of federal funds, unconstrained by government-wide spending limits, to combat wildfires during an above-average fire season.

This concept has broad, bipartisan support. It has been included in other proposals from members of Congress who represent Western states and is supported by the Obama administration.

Despite that consensus, the fix was not included in the spending bill passed last December because some lawmakers requested additional reforms related the Forest Service’s long-term budget outlook, while others requested contentious changes to how the agency manages national forests and conducts environmental reviews.

Robbing fire prevention accounts to fight fires makes no sense and needs to end as soon as possible. A straightforward, narrow fix to the federal wildfire budgeting process is uncontroversial and needed urgently. Congress should pass the budget fix on its own now and buy time to find consensus on broad reforms…”

Forest Service Chief testifies before Senate Committee

Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell
Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testifies before a Senate Committee February 26, 2015

Thomas Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, testified March 26 at a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The primary purpose of the hearing was the Forest Service budget for Fiscal  Year 2016, but there were many questions from the Senators about other issues.

There were no earth-shaking revelations in the hearing about wildland fire, and few deeply probing questions from the Senators on the subject. Contrary to the recent annual hearings like this, there was no lengthy discussion about air tankers.

The video from the hearing is available at the Committee’s web site. The hearing begins at 12:30. I skimmed through all of it and identified sections that had some of the more interesting remarks about wildland fire.

From 1:13:15 until 1:19:30 Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon asked some fire-related questions, mostly about the fire borrowing problem.

From 2:05:15 until 2:07:19 Washington’s Senator Maria Cantwell asked that Chief Tidwell work with the Department of Homeland Security to make it possible to use drones, especially on fires. This is the first I have heard that the DHS is regulating drones. The Chief responded that they are working with the DHS and the FAA on the issue.

A surprising topic was the permitting system for photography on national forests, from 2:23:40 until 2:33:15. The Chair of the Committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, strongly made the point that the very poorly written and ambiguous proposed rule that would govern the use of still and video photography in U.S. Forest Service wilderness areas, needed to be fixed. We last wrote about this issue September 26, 2014. Among other disturbing features of the rules is that an application for a permit for photography can be denied if a USFS official decides that there is a “suitable location outside of a wilderness area” for the photography. Employees at the local National Forest get to use their photographic editing and filmmaking skills to make that determination, overruling the knowledge, desires, and experience of the photographer. Yesterday Chief Tidwell basically said the same thing, that if an alternative location is available, the photographer should use that, rather than the location identified by the photographer or filmmaker.

Credit goes to Senator Murkowski for strongly advocating that low impact photography in national forests should not be restrained by ridiculous Forest Service rules. She kept pressing for a date by which the revised final rules would be issued, and the Chief said “sometime this year”.

Below is a section out of Chief Tidwell’s lengthy written testimony related to wildland fire. Thankfully, he did not read the eight-page document.

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“….Managing Wildland Fires
Increasingly severe fire seasons are one of the greatest challenges facing the Nation’s forests. The Forest Service will continue to collaborate with its Federal, State, local, and Tribal governments, partners, and stakeholders on the implementation of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy to safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed, use fire where allowable, manage our natural resources and, as a Nation, live with wildland fire.

The Forest Service has one of the most effective fire organizations in the world and continues to keep almost 98 percent of the wildfires we fight very small. However, the few fires that do escape initial response tend to grow much larger far more quickly than ever before. In addition, the cost of fire suppression has soared in the past 20 years.

Continue reading “Forest Service Chief testifies before Senate Committee”

Secretary of Interior’s comments during Senate hearing

On February 24 Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, testified at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The primary focus of the hearing was the Department’s budget for Fiscal  Year 2016. The video of the webcast can be seen here. The proceedings begin at 18:40.

Senator Lisa Murkowski
Senator Lisa Murkowski

The Chair of the Committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, recently  threatened to cut the budget of the Department of the Interior in retaliation for the Obama administration’s proposal to set aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. A severe budget reduction could result in the loss of jobs within the Department. Senator Murkowski began the hearing by stating her reservations with the decision to designate the wilderness areas.

Below are excerpts from Secretary Jewell’s prepared remarks on the subject of wildland fire. The complete text is here:

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“The budget renews the call for a new funding framework for wildland fire suppression, similar to how the costs for other natural disasters are met. The initiative proposes base level funding of 70 percent of the 10-year average for suppression costs within the discretionary budget and an additional $200 million available in the event of the most severe fire activity, which comprises only one percent of the fires but 30 percent of the costs. Wildland fire continues to be one our most important land management challenges. In January I issued Secretarial Order 3336 that recognizes the critical importance of fire in protecting, conserving, and restoring the health of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem on which rural economies, wildlife – including the sage grouse – and a way of life depend. Shortly, we will be releasing our strategy for the 2015 fire season, to be followed by a long-term strategy for addressing rangeland fire prevention, management, and restoration. On a broader scale, the Department is firmly committed to the National Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy and the three goals of restoring and maintaining fire-resilient landscapes, creating fire adapted communities, and safe and effective operations. In support of those goals, the budget reflects an integrated approach to wildland fire management, including $30.0 million for a Resilient Landscapes program to create landscapes that are resilient to wildfire through long-term, landscape scale, place-based projects. Resilient Landscape program projects will be accomplished through collaborative partnerships that include non-fire bureau resources and land management programs along with other Federal, tribal, State and non-governmental partners. The budget continues to include funding for the Fuels Management program to improve the integrity and resilience of forests and rangelands, contribute to community adaptation to fire, and improve our ability to safely and appropriately respond to wildfires.

Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior
Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior

[…]
The 2016 request for the Department-wide Wildland Fire Management program is $805.5 million without the proposed fire cap adjustment, and $1.05 billion including the adjustment. The request includes $268.6 million for fire suppression within the base budget, which is 70 percent of the 10 year suppression average spending. The cap adjustment of $200.0 million would only be used for the most severe fires, since it is one percent of the fires that cause 30 percent of the costs. The new budget framework for Wildland Fire Management eliminates the need for additional funds through the FLAME Act.

The 2016 budget requests $30.0 million in a new Resilient Landscapes subactivity to build on resilient landscapes activities supported by Congress in 2015. Congress provided $10.0 million for resilient landscapes activities in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations Act by designating that amount within Fuels Management. While fuels treatments and resilient landscapes activities are complementary and synergistic, they also have distinct differences, including the methodology for prioritizing place-based projects and a leveraged funding requirement for resilient landscapes. Establishing a separate subactivity for Resilient Landscapes will assist the Department and Wildland Fire Management bureaus in tracking funds obligated and program accomplishments. The $20.0 million increase in funding will enable the Wildland Fire Management program to take better advantage of the shared goals of bureau resource management programs to treat large landscapes to achieve and maintain fire-adapted ecosystems that both reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire and achieve restoration and other ecological objectives. The increase for Resilient Landscapes is partially offset with a program realignment of $17.7 million in the Fuels Management program from 2015; total funds for the combined Fuels Management and Resilient Landscapes subactivities are $14.3 million above 2015.”

Sen. Murkowski threatens retaliatory budget cut for the DOI

muskoxen
Muskoxen in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS photo.

In retaliation for the Obama administration’s proposal to set aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has threatened to cut the budget of the Department of the Interior. The wilderness designation would prevent any chance of oil exploration in the area, which would infuriate many Republican politicians.

Four agencies in the DOI  employ large numbers of wildland firefighters — the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management. If Senator Murkowski is able to impose a large cut in the DOI budget, perhaps hundreds or thousands of employees could lose their jobs, with some of them being firefighters.

But the Senator says “jobs are transitory”.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Alaska Public Media:

…But as chair of the Energy Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski has some level of oversight over the Department of the Interior. Murkowski says Secretary Sally Jewell will appear before her twice in the coming weeks.

“She will be before my energy committee on the Tuesday next, as she presents the budget,” Murkowski said. “And then I will have her in front of my Interior appropriations subcommittee on March 4, so I’m going to have plenty of opportunity to engage with her.”

Murkowski notes she is in a position to affect the Department of Interior’s budget.

“If budgets are reduced and people lose their jobs, that is an outcome. Right now, what people in this region seem to be concerned about is losing their land. A job is transitory,” Murkowski said. “This Secretary is going to have this job for just two more years, this President is going to have this job for less than two years, but the land – the land – that’s what I’m here to protect. This is what we need to be fighting for. I’m not going to be fighting for some short-term job for a bureaucrat.”

In response, Jewell says she is “hopeful” that there will not be retaliatory cuts, and notes the Department provides aerial mapping of Alaska and monitors earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the state.

Bill approved by House includes funding for wildland fire

Dollar Sign(Originally published December 12, 2014; updated December 13, 2014)

On December 11 the House of Representatives passed a consolidated federal appropriations bill that if also passed by the Senate and signed by the President in its present form would fund most of the government for the remainder of this fiscal year that ends September 30, 2015.

The bill provides $3.53 billion for Interior Department and Forest Service wildland fire management activities, which is $223 million above the FY 2014 funding amount, meeting the 10‐year average.

It includes $65 million for “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet” which “shall be suitable for contractor operation”. We have a call in to the Forest Service to find out what this is for exactly. It appears to be over and above what is normally appropriated for the contracting of air tankers, and may have something to do with management and retrofitting of the C-130Hs the agency is in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard. But those aircraft are not expected to be received until FY 2018. We would be surprised if the USFS plans to purchase additional air tankers. If our call to the USFS is returned, we will post an update here.

(UPDATE at 9:12 a.m. MST, December 13, 2014: Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson with the USFS, told us that their budget staff will not disclose how that $65 million will be spent until after Congress and the President pass and sign the bill.)

(UPDATE December 16, 2014: An article at Fire Aviation explores in much more detail how the Forest Service may spend the $65 million allocated for air tankers.)

Below are excerpts from the bill; the full text of which can be accessed here.

Forest Service
Page 745
WILDLAND FIRE MANAGEMENT
For necessary expenses for forest fire presuppression
activities on National Forest System lands, for emergency
fire suppression on or adjacent to such lands or other
lands under fire protection agreement, hazardous fuels
management on or adjacent to such lands, emergency re-
habilitation of burned-over National Forest System lands
and water, and for State and volunteer fire assistance,
$2,333,298,000, to remain available until expended: …
[…]
Page 746
…Provided further, That of the
funds provided, $361,749,000 is for hazardous fuels man-
agement activities, $19,795,000 is for research activities
and to make competitive research grants pursuant to the
Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Research
Act, (16 U.S.C. 1641 et seq.), $78,000,000 is for State
fire assistance, and $13,000,000 is for volunteer fire as-
sistance under section 10 of the Cooperative Forestry As-
sistance Act of 1978 (16 U.S.C. 2106): …
Page 747
…Provided further, That, of the funds provided, $65,000,000
shall be available for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for
the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting
mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety, and such air-
craft shall be suitable for contractor operation over the
terrain and forested-ecosystems characteristic of National
forest System lands, as determined by the Chief of the
Forest Service:
Page 749
FLAME WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION RESERVE FUND
(INCLUDING TRANSFERS OF FUNDS)
For necessary expenses for large fire suppression
operations of the Department of Agriculture and as a reserve
fund for suppression and Federal emergency response
activities, $303,060,000, to remain available until expended:
Provided, That such amounts are only available for trans-
fer to the ‘‘Wildland Fire Management’’ account following
a declaration by the Secretary in accordance with section
502 of the FLAME Act of 2009 (43 U.S.C. 1748a)…

Department of the Interior
Page 706-707
DEPARTMENT-WIDE PROGRAMS
WILDLAND FIRE MANAGEMENT
(INCLUDING TRANSFERS OF FUNDS)
For necessary expenses for fire preparedness, fire
suppression operations, fire science and research, emer-
gency rehabilitation, hazardous fuels management activi-
ties, and rural fire assistance by the Department of the
Interior, $804,779,000, to remain available until
expended, of which not to exceed $6,127,000 shall be for
the renovation or construction of fire facilities: Provided,
That such funds are also available for repayment of
advances to other appropriation accounts from which funds
were previously transferred for such purposes: Provided
further, That of the funds provided $164,000,000 is for
hazardous fuels management activities, of which
$10,000,000 is for resilient landscapes activities: Provided
further, That of the funds provided $18,035,000 is for
burned area rehabilitation:..
Page 710
FLAME WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION RESERVE FUND
(INCLUDING TRANSFER OF FUNDS)
For necessary expenses for large fire suppression
operations of the Department of the Interior and as a
reserve fund for suppression and Federal emergency
response activities, $92,000,000, to remain available until
expended: Provided, That such amounts are only available
for transfer to the ‘‘Wildland Fire Management’’ account
following a declaration by the Secretary in accordance
with section 502 of the FLAME Act of 2009 (43 U.S.C.
1748a).