September 19, 2006

New government report criticizes current wildfire suppression budget practices

Wyden, Craig and others requested the analysis to document problems with shell game used to fund wildfire fighting

Washington, DC U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Larry Craig (R-ID) and several colleagues today released a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report blasting current wildfire suppression budget practices. The report, commissioned by Wyden, Craig and other members of Congress, identifies problems created by the practice of transferring funding from one project to another within agencies when those agencies have insufficient budgets for fighting wildfires. For the last two years, Federal agencies charged with preventing wildfires have been forced to borrow funds from other, unrelated projects to pay for firefighting. This shell game leaves vital fire prevention projects such as hazardous fuels reduction and watershed restoration - underfunded and undone, which contributes to continuing fire dangers.The GAO report, titled WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION: Funding Transfers Cause Project Cancellations, Strained Relationships, and Management Disruptions, states (in part):Transferring funds for wildfire suppression resulted in cancelled and delayed projects, strained relationships with state and local agency partners, and difficulties in managing programs. These impacts affected numerous activities including fuels reduction and land acquisition. Although transfers were intended to aid fire suppression, some projects that could improve agency capabilities to fight fires, such as purchasing additional equipment, were cancelled or delayed. Further, agencies relationships with states, nonprofit groups, and communities were negatively impacted because agency officials could not fulfill commitments, such as awarding grants. Transfers also disrupted the agencies ability to manage programs, including annual and long-term budgeting and planning. While the agencies took some steps to mitigate the impacts of transfers, the effects were widespread and will likely increase if transfers continue.Wyden and Craig have consistently sought to sufficiently fund both wildfire prevention and suppression efforts.Year in and year out, we fight for adequate resources for fighting and preventing wildfires; year in and year out, those resources are cut out of the budget, Wyden said. This report makes clear, in terms no one can misunderstand, that the cost of business as usual is far too high and that we must truly and fully fund both wildfire prevention and suppression efforts.This report confirms and illustrates what we suspected -- we are robbing Peter to pay Paul. The federal land management agencies sacrifice funding for land management in the name of wildfire suppression. In order to properly control fire, we need to treat our lands before a fire starts. We must enact a funding mechanism that allows the agencies to manage our lands, including proactive measures such as the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, said Craig.The report cites that neither the Forest Service nor the Department of the Interior have adequate data or tracking mechanisms for the effect of continued interagency borrowing for fire fighting. It also recommends setting aside off-budget funding specifically for emergency purposes, either in agency-specific accounts or in a government-wide account.Wyden and Craig, along with U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and U.S. Representatives Charles Taylor (R-NC) and Norm Dicks (D-WA), requested the report from the GAO, which is a nonpartisan and independent investigative arm of Congress. The full report will be available at tomorrow.