Administration requests 2% to 5% increases in fire budgets

Large cuts in research, and land management agencies in the Department of the Interior could see their overall budgets decrease by 3% to 20% next fiscal year

ignite Trout Springs prescribed fire
A firefighter ignites the Trout Springs prescribed fire in Southwest Idaho. BLM photo.

(UPDATED at 11:02 am MST Feb. 11, 2020)

The administration has released its proposed budgets for fiscal year 2021 which begins October 1. If approved by Congress exactly as written, which is unlikely, the wildland fire budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and the four land management agencies in the Department of the Interior would increase. The budget also calls for large reductions in research and the closure of two Forest Service Research Stations which would eliminate 287 positions.

Combined, the DOI agencies’ fire budgets would increase by 5%, while the FS fire budget could see a 2% bump.

The overall budget for the FS would remain about the same as this fiscal year, but the DOI agencies could see their overall budgets decrease by 3% to 20%. Below are the proposed changes in the total budgets (first) and full time equivalent staff years (second) for the FS and DOI agencies:

  • National Park Service: -14%, -5%
  • Fish & Wildlife Service: -3%, -0.4%
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs: -10%, -10%
  • Bureau of Land Management: -20%, +3%
  • Forest Service: 0%, -1.5%

These numbers are what the departments and agencies are suggesting for FY 2021 with the approval or at the direction of the White House. As the budget goes through the appropriation process it will change. But as Congress continues to turn over more of their authority to the President, we may see fewer changes this time.

You can read the FY 2021 Budget Briefs by the two Departments. “Brief” may not be the most accurate choice of words, with the DOI document reaching 237 pages and the Department of Agriculture’s totaling 112 pages.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 provided new budget authority to fight wildfires, known as the “fire fix.” Beginning this year, FY 2020 and continuing through 2027, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior will have new budget authority available when Suppression funding has been exhausted. This budget authority is $2.35 billion in 2021 (of which $2.04 billion is allocated to the Forest Service) and increases by $100 million each year through 2027. In a busy fire year this will reduce the “borrowing” of funds from non-fire programs, and make fire programs more self-sufficient.

U.S. Forest Service proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021
U.S. Forest Service proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021.

Both budget documents mention fuel management, active forest management, and timber salvage many times, reflecting what is often heard from White House personnel.

The Trump administration wants to close two research facilities, the Pacific Southwest Research Station (-$18.5 million) and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (-$2.5 million). These cuts would eliminate 287 staff years. These closures would require the use of reduction in force authority, voluntary early retirement authority, and voluntary separation incentive authority. In addition the agency would eliminate recreation research (-$8.5 million) and wildlife and fish research (-$22.5 million).

The administration also wants to cut Forest and Rangeland Research by $55 million (18%) and State and Private Forestry by $129 million (37%). The FS description of State and Private Forestry: “provides technical and financial assistance to landowners and resource managers to help sustain the nation’s forests and grasslands, protect communities from wildland fire and restore fire-adapted ecosystems.”

A decrease of $8,000,000 would affect research in forest and grassland health, forest soils, air quality, hydrology, silviculture, and forest ecology, as well as in applied science to improve forest conditions, forest inventory and trend analysis, and wood product and market innovations.

The Joint Fire Science Program which has been zeroed out in the budget recommendations in the two previous years, but later funded by Congress, is listed to receive $3 million, which would be the same as it actually received in FY 2020.

The DOI has a $28 million “Plan to Transform the Firefighting Workforce,” a $28.0 million investment to hire more full-time professionals. The budget will also enable Interior to extend the duration of temporary hires and career seasonals as the program seeks administrative authority to extend the duration of temporary hires. Here is an excerpt from the budget proposal:

Interior’s ability to recruit and train full-time fire personnel has steadily declined, leaving the program excessively dependent on temporary personnel and contractors, a workforce model incompatible with a fire season that has now become a fire year, with larger, costlier, and more complex fires. The requested funding will strengthen DOI’s ability to maintain its initial-attack success rate and provide effective wildfire response throughout the fire year.

The FS, which contracts for all large air tankers, very large air tankers, and Type 1 helicopters, only mentioned aviation very briefly in the document, saying they will “…continue to right-size its aviation assets, evaluating the best mix of asset types and ownership models to provide the necessary aviation capability.” No details were given about the number or types of aircraft they plan to use for homeland security — fighting fires. In recent years, the meaningless term “right-size” has been synonymous with down-size.

Another document, FY 2021 Budget Justification, provides more details about aviation. On page 18 it indicates there were 18 Next Generation Air Tankers in FY 2020. But in the middle of the fire season and three weeks before the end of the fiscal year there were only 13 on exclusive use contracts. Occasionally additional Call When Needed air tankers were activated. On page 93 the Justification says the “robust aviation program” will include “up to 18 exclusive use air tankers”.  The “up to” modifier allows a great deal of obfuscation, again.

As this is written, there are only 13 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. It has been 499 days since the Forest Service published the solicitation for another round of Next Gen air tankers Ver. 3.0, on November 19, 2018. Bids were required by February 14, 2019.

Having only 11 to 13 large and very large air tankers on exclusive use contracts is far fewer than is needed.

In some of the past Congressional budget hearings occasionally a Congressman or Senator has asked pointed questions about the fire budget, but only rarely are followup questions asked after the agency person gives a vague response.

DOI fire budget FY 2021
The administration’s proposed Department of the Interior budget for Fiscal Year 2021.
Forest Service fire budget FY 2021
The administration’s proposed U.S. Forest Service budget for Fiscal Year 2021.

This article was edited Feb. 11, 2020 to include more details about aviation and cuts to research noted in the Budget Justification document.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

7 thoughts on “Administration requests 2% to 5% increases in fire budgets”

  1. Formulating a cohesive budget requires a decent awareness of all the programs — how the push of one account can affect the pull of another. Unfortunately, this proposed budget has so many inconsistencies in it, one has to question the awareness quotient in the formulation. Perhaps like one of the comments above, nobody really cares [when it comes to comprehensive natural resources management].

    For the Forest Service, the lack of cohesion is almost beyond description. Reminds me of the terrible proposal in the mid-1990’s. The good news is that one branch of government proposes and another disposes. Let’s hope than the awareness quotient improves as the process unfolds.

    I see the Forest Service has a proposed increase of +$65 million for hazardous fuels treatment [HFT] — to a level of $510 million. In 2001, when the National Fire Plan was developed, the estimate of needs was $850 million to address the 38 million acres of National Forests that were “high risk to fire.” Now, at over 90 million acres that are “high risk to fire”, the needs in HFT approach about $2 billion annually — accordingly to the Congressional Research Service and other clinical evaluators. Thus, the tiny proposed increase of an overall completely inadequately funded program will have no real impact — except perhaps to more narrowly defined “firesheds.” Essentially, $65 million will probably be wasted.

    The proposed closure of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry [IITF] to “save” $2.5 million is beyond stupidity. This is a magnificent program with benefits to costs of about 50:1, and I am being very conservative.

    I am a big fan of FIA [Forest Inventory and Analysis]. However, it is not a fortification of efficiency. Yet, year after year it’s earmarked within Research and Development at ever increasing rates. The program seems beyond question. With today’s technologies, it needs to be questioned. Not to be too cynical, but maybe $2.5 million in FIA cost-efficiencies might be found.

    Eliminating urban forestry is almost as ridiculous as the proposal for the IITF. At a B/C ratio of at least 15:1 and the importance of an indirect role of “caring for the land and serving people, where they live,” I can only imagine what OBPA must have been thinking.

    When you include the amount for HFT and the “Fire Fix” funds, fire represents about 67 percent of the Forest Service budget in the 2021 proposal [I am excluding the mandatory programs which is typical in calculating this percent]. Kindly, the graphic in the USDA Budget Summary is very misleading. The last thing America needs is more funds for fire suppression. What is needed are additional resources for vegetation management — that have been shifted from management actions for the past 25+ years — so our forests [more than just trees] can become unclogged. But I guess no one cares if our forests are healthy, sustainable and more resilient to disturbances.

    When I read through the Budget Justification documents, it’s hard not to become discouraged — and as above, a bit cynical. Not at the notion of trimming the budget. But at the notion that there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the “push and pulls.” Right now, it seems to be just a conglomeration of disconnected accounts. Let’s hope there are Appropriators that do indeed care and thus, a more sensical and cohesive budget shall prevail for the people being served and the care of their lands.

    Very respectfully,

  2. Tax cuts, deficits and increased military spending add up to a need to reduce federal spending somewhere to offset these numbers. So why not cut natural resources programs? Forest Service research is an easy target. So we shouldn’t be surprised that an administration that has shown little regard for the environment would do this.

  3. We can debate the merits of using different political and economic philosophies when it comes to funding the basic “care and feeding” of our public lands until we are blue in the face but the truth is no one cares. At least no one in political office gives a rat’s ass about covering resource management costs at adequate levels because many of the benefits and services we derive from public lands aren’t monetized.

    When we were utilizing the National Forests as a fundamental resource for the wood products and ranching industries, budgets were proportionally higher because the goods produces (i.e. wood, beef, and wool) had a price tag. Once those outputs were backburnered, often for very good ecological reasons, the funding streams disappeared and the interest in land management withered at the political level.

    Today you can get folks to mention fire management because those rank as catastrophes. But when was the last time you heard someone running (or in) office have cogent discussion of natural resource management issues? Much less place it as a funding priority. It isn’t going to happen anytime soon, at least not at the national level. The best we can hope for in the short term is benign neglect. Unfortunately, the Trumpists are actively working to degrade the resource in as many areas as they can as fast as they can.

    I can only hope that somewhere, sometime people of courage and integrity in political office (does such a thing even exist?) with the interest in public lands management will actually have a voice. Elsewise it’ll be management through litigation for the most part. And the budgets will continue to reflect that.

  4. It’s very strange that the individuals commenting on the “well-heeled government worker” (hint: we’re not), are usually the very same people that seek out federal cost-assistance and private forest land assistance the most in my experience. Also the same people that bemoan the cost of hiring a private foresters.

    As the old euphemism goes, “cut off your nose to save face.” Getting rid of these programs may save governments money in the short-term (and sound great during political rallies), but do absolutely nothing to consider the long term economic impact they may have. To say otherwise is simply ignorant; laissez faire economics never was the catalyst for the conservation movement, environmental regulations that promoted clean air and water, prohibitions on child labor, etc.

  5. It’s about time to cut some fat out of the Federal Budget !! However, it goes without saying that the Wildfire budgets should be increasing !!

  6. Sad to look at the budgets of the “Office of Secretary” and “Office of Solicitor”, which clearly shows the large amount of legal / contract paper going across the desks, are growing every year.

    Also the budge for the National Park Service. Guess money spent in the Parks to not fill the pockets of
    the “Big Donners” to the party or the contracts to fatten the pockets those doing the work.


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