Forest Service announces 10-year initiative to increase fuel treatment

It will use $2.42 billion authorized by the infrastructure bill for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for fuels-related projects

Geronimo Hotshots
Geronimo Hotshots on the Big Windy Complex, Oregon, 2013. USFS photo by Lance Cheung.

On Tuesday the U.S. Forest Service announced a 10-year strategy to address what they call the wildfire crisis which poses immediate threats to communities. The initiative, called “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests,” combines the recent large investment funded by congress  with years of research and planning into a national effort that is intended to significantly increase the scale of forest health treatments over the next decade.

The Forest Service will work with other federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, and with Tribes, states, local communities, private landowners, and other partners to focus fuels and forest health treatments more strategically and at a larger scale.

Funding was approved in November

The Bipartisan Infrastructure bill signed by the President November 15, 2021 authorized about $2.42 billion for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for fuels-related projects. (M = million)

  • $100M, Pre-fire planning, and training personnel for wildland firefighting and vegetation treatments
  • $20M, Data management for fuels projects and large fires
  • $100M, Planning & implementing projects under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program
  • $500M, Mechanical thinning, timber harvesting, pre-commercial thinning
  • $500M, Wildfire defense grants for at risk communities
  • $500M, Prescribed fires
  • $500M, Constructing fuelbreaks
  • $200M, Remove fuels, produce biochar and other innovative wood products

Previous testimony about fuel management before congressional committees

During testimony June 17, 2021  before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources former US Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said the agency treats fuels on about three million acres each year but said they need to treat two to four times that amount. She repeatedly called for a “paradigm shift” for treating hazardous fuels. Senator Ron Wyden (OR) got Ms. Christiansen to confirm that the agency’s latest estimate is that it would take $20 billion over a 10-year period  to “get in front of the hazardous fuel challenge”.

On September 29, 2021 in a hearing before the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, new USFS Chief Randy Moore said, “We will never hire enough firefighters, we will never buy enough engines or aircraft to fight these fires. We must actively treat forests. That’s what it takes to turn this situation around. We must shift from small scale treatments to strategic science-based treatments across boundaries. It must start with those places most critically at risk. We must treat 20 million acres over 10 years. Done right in the right places, treatments make a difference.”

On October 27, 2021 Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief for State and Private Forestry told the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Resources, “We need to treat an additional 20 million acres over the next decade and that could cost up to $20 billion or more.”

What is now planned

The plan released Tuesday by the Forest Service calls for:

  1. Treating up to an additional 20 million acres on the National Forest System lands in the West, over and above current treatment levels;
  2. Treating up to an additional 30 million acres on other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands in the West;

The current level of treatment in recent years has been 2-3 million acres per year for fuels and forest health, the new document stated.

The plan calls for an unprecedented “paradigm shift” in land management to increase fuels and forest health treatments across jurisdictions to match the actual scale of wildfire risk to people, communities, and natural resources, especially in the Western United States.

The Forest Service is developing staffing plans and will be increasing capacity in not only field personnel specializing in prescribed fire to complete the work but also key administrative positions like contracting officers, human resources professionals, collaboration and partnership coordinators, communications, and grants and agreements specialists who will assist in connecting with partners.

Marshall Fire, Louisville, Colorado, by WxChasing/Brandon Clement
Marshall Fire, Louisville, Colorado. Photo by WxChasing/Brandon Clement, Dec. 31, 2021.

In 2022 and 2023

During the first two years of the initiative, the agency will be looking for large landscape-scale projects that are ready to go, up until now lacking only the necessary funding.

They will be seeking projects that are:

  • Designed to reduce wildfire risk to communities, water supplies, or critical infrastructure (including utility lines, roads, and national security sites);
  • Critical ecological values (including watersheds, wildlife habitat, and old growth stands) and ecosystem services (including carbon storage);
  • Economic values (including outdoor recreation, timber, and grazing areas);
  • Areas of cultural and historic significance (including areas important to Tribes); and,
  • Areas of social importance to communities (including for access and subsistence use).

Reforestation

The new initiative also strives for increased rates of reforestation following forest fires.

“We currently address only 6 percent of post-wildfire replanting needs per year, resulting in a rapidly expanding list of reforestation needs,” the new plan states. “We have plans for the reforestation of more than 1.3 million acres of National Forest System land. However, these plans only address one-third of National Forest System reforestation needs, estimated to be 4 million acres and growing. As we work to recover from wildfire, we are emphasizing planting the right species, in the right place, under the right conditions, so forests will remain healthy and resilient over time.”

Our take

The testimony before congressional committees said that in order  to “get in front of the hazardous fuel challenge” and “turn this situation around” the Forest Service needs an additional $2 billion a year for the next 10 years, over and above what is currently being spent. What was appropriated for the next five years was about $0.48 billion per year, less than one-fourth of the additional funds the agency said was needed.

The growth of the climate crisis which has contributed to the “wildfire crisis” appears to be exceeding the estimates of scientists. Changes are occurring even more quickly than previously expected. So low-balling the funding for protecting our homeland will mean we will fall even further behind in treating fuels and attempting to keep fires from wiping out more communities.

The heads of the five federal land management agencies need to be honest with congress and continue to point out the scope of the fuels problem and the increasing risk of fiddling while the forests and subdivisions burn. Congress must accept the facts and pass legislation adequate to address the threats to our ecosystems and communities.

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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.

18 thoughts on “Forest Service announces 10-year initiative to increase fuel treatment”

  1. If this is a National Crisis, it begs the question of developing a National Fire Service to confront this crisis. Removing redundancies, streamlining initial attack response across jurisdictional boundaries, eliminating barriers that exist between the different mission statements of each land management agency, and responding to this is as though it were a crisis. The workforce and NEPA regulations are the biggest key barriers to ramping up this effort and are barely if at all touched on. Unfortunately we won’t likely invest in our firefighters and instead will poor it into mismanaged projects that will undoubtedly fail to secure maintenance funding when the brush grows back in 10 years. I believe it’s telling that the ground pounders down here close to the earth have heard nothing but crickets and platitudes from senior leadership while we will be the ones to bare the brunt of increased vacancies, poor retention and the expectation we will quadruple our output. All the while responding to an ever increasing unplanned wildfire work load.

  2. Randy Moore said, “We will never hire enough firefighters, we will never buy enough engines or aircraft to fight these fires….” My response: TRY!!! DO YOUR JOB!!! Yes, I’m totally pissed. The Forest Service created this mess and then they go to Congress and asks for more money to fix it. And Congress gives it to them! IT’S INSANE!!! It’s like hiring a contractor to remodel your bathroom…they destroy it…they ask for more money to fix it…they still don’t fix the bathroom and then you hire them again to remodel your kitchen. Seriously, we need a National Fire Department. Stop giving the Forest Service money. Seriously, I went to Congress on my own dime. I’ve reported faud and these people did not get punished. Instead, they were promoted. Please stop the insanity! I’m also pissed that the Forest Service only looks at scientist when they need someone to agree with them, but they fire us when we won’t have sex with them. Look around you, how many scientists are still working in your office? Ok, so let’s have a little science lesson…Mismanagement causes wildfires…Wildfiress cause climate change…Not the other way around. So, with that logic Mismanagement causes climate change. I’m so tired of the Forest Service blaming everything on climate change. Vicki Christainsen was the one who said, “Climate change causes wildfires”. Think about the source you’re getting your information from. So, I’m going explain this like I’m talking to a 5th grader (yes, that’s a slam on a guy who interviewed me for a science job and then gave the job to a vet who has no scientific degree and no experience!!!) A fire starts and because the land has not been managed an acre fire turns into a 900,000 acre fire. This releases CO, a criteria pollutant, which triggers the Clean Air Act, but because it is a wildfire the emission are not counted, because of the Exception Rule Event. Anyway, the CO is released and trapped in the atmosphere and that causes the temperatures to rise…causing global warming…which we now call climate change. We changed the name of this phenomenon, because a certain administration didn’t think global warming was “happy” enough…and yes, I was in that meeting. As for the comment on NEPA, we were stream lining the process when many of us were fired. The problem is not with NEPA, the problem is you have to have people to do NEPA. Again, the Forest Service fired us. Ok, I’ve calmed down a little…I live in Colorado and there are a lot of homeless people. People without jobs. The Forest Service has land and they need people to manage the land. Why not hire these homeless people. They could build tiny homes on the land and then they could work for you. You hire inmates, why not homeless people? My last point…bad management got you into this mess and now you’re asking the same bad management to get you out! Please stop the insanity!!!

  3. I think this new 10 year plan is going in the right direction. I disagree with the idea of creating a national fire service because fire management becomes even more divorced from land management. As the FS now admits, fire suppression got us into this mess, and doubling down on more suppression will not get us out. The solutions involve tightly integrating fire and fire objectives INTO land and landscape management just as our federal fire policy states – not extricating fire functions and focusing them on suppression objectives. The southeastern US is a prime example of how to manage fire. Why would we advocate for an entirely different approach in our western fire dependent forests?

    1. You’re on point with this comment. We’ve tried fire suppression for over 100 years, and our wildfire situation is worse than ever – and some think the solution to that problem is an agency devoted to fire suppression? It’s well documented that the current fuels situation is a significant contributor to our wildfire problem, and the past fire suppression mindset contributed to that fuel situation – so some think the solution is to remove resources necessary to manage fuels from the land management agencies? I understand proactively managing fuels isn’t as glamourous as responding to a wildfire, but if we truly want to reduce catastrophic wildfires, we need to start where the problem begins, and that’s with fuels.

  4. Wow where to begin. We have to learn from the other large budget initiatives of the past where congress threw a bunch of tax payer dollars (albeit not nearly enough) at this hazardous fuels problem.

    The Forest Service decentralized model promotes massive inefficiencies. The current model allows every unit and RD in the system to reprioritize the use of funds and other valuable resources toward their own goals and priorities even when they are not aligned with congress, agency or program goals. The agency culture values unit, RD “line officer autonomy” over mission or congressional appropriations.

    The FS will neither focus on the highest values to the American people communities / WUI, nor will they accept or value the maintenance piece of this. In every budget request since Gifford Pinchot, the FS sights protecting communities and then spends the rest the time telling FIREFIGHTERS “its not our mission “. The FS will ignore the important drudgery of fuels maintenance which is no where near as glamorous or fulfilling as cutting the project initiation ribbon on postage stamp scale projects to meet every stakeholder and special interest, friends of the Forest groups desire, Or ecological restoration projects funded out of hazardous fuels funding while not reducing fuels. These project are low hanging fruit, make people feel good but are neither to scale to matter nor strategic. But they are often shovel ready and earn the DR or FS major political brownie points.

    Do we double down on suppression? If our goals are to catch as mane of these fires during IA as we can, protect communities, live and property , and provide a more resilient firefighting organization , then HELL YES!

    Even if effective firefighting got us into this mess, it is still a mess none the less. One that poses a significant threat to the American people. Whether we like it or not, wanted to be here or not, we are here and we have what we have. To NOT double down on a more robust, more effective and more capable firefighting organization would be irresponsible at the least if not criminally negligent. This crisis threatens most Americans and effects us ALL.

    We need to accept the reality and organize around it. Let go of romantic visions of how we should have managed things over the last 100 years, or how we want the organization to look (not like a Fire org.) and not continue to manage things around how we wish they were and accept how things actually are…a crisis. Manage it as the crisis that it is, the American people deserve more!

  5. Off season Lawn chair out – watching Another Adhesive Bandaid that congress rolls out- lead by our incompetent FS leadership – (who preaches to fix it)- except what is really bleeding won’t be fixed.

    When will we ever learn to accept change. It is not the 1910’s – 1990’s anymore. Time for organizational change is way overdue.

    National Wildland Fire Agency is what we need. Let the divorce happen. We have been fighting for way to long. We have tried to fix our separation. It hasn’t worked.

    Wildland Fire agency- permanent IMT’s, permanent firefighters- dedicated firefighters paid to do the job.

    Since it is a crisis! Congress- build a program to support us, and the people of USA. Figure out what department wants to host a National Wildland Firefighting Agency.

    1. Divorced? I guess the honeymoon is over! What about the kids…the dog…the cat…the house? 😉 All kidding aside, I agree with you I support a National Wildland Fire Agency, but if we do this, we get rid of ASC!!! Decentralize HR.

  6. Must be really hard to please folks. How is this a bad thing? It’s certainly not enough money, like Mr. Gabbert pointed out, but can’t we be a little optimistic about where this will go? A large scale fuels mitigation movement combined with a separate deal to increase firefighter pay seems like a decent amount of reform in one year….

  7. While I don’t disagree in principle with a National Wildland Fire Service, I don’t see the relevance to this fuels mitigation outside of the on the ground workforce and NEPA input from fire/fuels staff. Lots of this work can be completed via contracting and probably should be considering the workload already imposed on WFF during fire season.

    Would the NWFS also take on all of the NEPA work necessary to implement fuels mitigations? If so, that starts to look a lot like the….USFS/BLM.

    I’ve always figured that a National Fire Service would end up having a lot less influence over fire suppression and fuels management than they think, because I suspect they would end up acting as almost a consulting agency to the Federal Land Management Agencies and would be subject to intergovernmental agreements, Regional and Forest Supervisor direction, etc. Unless they take on the land management activities as well, which again, just means they are the USFS/BLM with a different name and priorities.

    NWFS makes a ton of sense from a couple of standpoints: a clear mission and priorities oriented on WFF training and safety, separate funding, etc. Holistic land management probably isn’t one of them.

    1. Your insight is both simplistic and totally comprehensive! I think also totally accurate. I am not sure why the mention of significantly increased funding for on the ground accomplishment, that everyone favors, brings out so many ” we’re going to Hell in a hand basket” comments. If the Forest Service doesn’t have the Regional Foresters, Forest Supervisors, District Rangers who can get get some good things accomplished with this funding, then they need to get some who can….I know they are still out there.

  8. Most of these comments illustrate the exact reason why the FS has failed to sustainably manage western forests and how we have now the extensive fires and disasters. For the entire 20th century, we thought – wrongly – that fire suppression has positive benefits to our lands and natural resources. It offers only an illusion of success, with long-term deleterious consequences. No matter how well we fight fires, we’re only enhancing tomorrows problems. Get real. A national fire service couldn’t suppress fires any better than Cal Fire – and look at the crisis in California!

  9. They can hire all sorts of contractors to help. I already got a fire contract 2 years ago. Haven’t done any work. To many paper pushers and managers. No action on the ground. Spend lots of money on this with no results. Ask some contractors and loggers to get it fixed.

  10. At this rate, wildfire will continue to outpace any/all fuels treatments by 200:1. It’s all going burn, but not under our terms.

    The time to have gotten on this was about 80 years ago. Now you’re trying to bail water out of the Titanic with a coffee mug.

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