Record $2 billion wildfire season pulls money from White River National Forest’s already shrinking budgets
Near the end of each summer, National Forest supervisors across the country brace for an odd ritual. With wildfires raging and money to fight them running out, they take stock of planned projects and decide which to cancel or push to next year.
When the firefighting money runs dry, as it did in August this year, the U.S. Forest Service has to borrow from the portion of its budget used to fund those projects, covering areas like recreation, wildlife and vegetation.
“It’s a perpetual end-of-summer exercise,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor for the White River National Forest. “They say, ‘OK, anything on the books we’re taking unless it’s to pay for high-priority safety things or people’s salaries.’ It’s disruptive and not an efficient way of doing business, for sure.”
This year, the impact for White River was fairly minimal, Fitzwilliams said. But it can create accounting headaches for the country’s busiest national forest, covering 11 ski resorts, eight wilderness areas, 10 14er peaks and nine counties, including Summit.
After one of the biggest, most destructive fire seasons in recent memory, the Forest Service expects to continue borrowing more and more from its forestry programs to cover fire costs, which exceeded a record $2 billion this year.
At the same time, national forest budgets continue to shrink, applying double financial pressure on the agency charged with maintaining trails, cleaning campgrounds and protecting wildlife habitats.
For the current fiscal year, which began in October, White River expects its budget to be cut by as much as 10 percent. The numbers won’t be final until Congress passes a budget, but Fitzwilliams expects a sixth consecutive year of belt-tightening.
“Even without the fire borrowing, the amount of money available for other programs continues to shrink,” he said. “So it just gets more challenging to deliver a lot of goods and services that people expect and want. We have to make choices, and some of them are difficult.”
Burning up the budget
The Forest Service’s budget has been stable over the past decade. But each year, it is split between the agency’s National Forest and wildland fire programs. The widening gulf between the two shows how dramatically the Forest Service’s mission has changed over the years — but it also forces tough decisions on people who manage the land where we hike, climb and ski.
In 1995, firefighting took up 16 percent of the Forest Service budget. Twenty years later, that had grown to 52 percent, and by 2025 the Forest Service expects to spend 67 percent of its money on fire suppression. That could mean $700 million less for non-fire programs, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Forest Service.
In the past two decades, spending on vegetation, watershed, wildlife and fisheries management has dropped as much as 24 percent. Capital expenditures on roads and facilities have declined 68 percent, and recreation, heritage and wilderness programs have seen a 15 percent cut.
“The dramatic underlying shift of funding and human capacity from non-fire programs to support fire programs has real implications on the ground, including for restoration work that would help prevent catastrophic fires, protect watersheds that provide clean drinking water to tens of millions of people, protect irreplaceable cultural resources, and provide the infrastructure and programming that supports the $646 billion outdoor recreation economy,” the report notes.
The change is apparent in its staff composition as well. Over the past two decades, the Forest Service lost at least 7,000 employees dedicated to managing forestlands, even while its overall staffing levels increased by 114 percent, according to the report. The growth came exclusively from fire personnel, who now outnumber forest employees by at least 1,000.
For years, the Forest Service has urged Congress to end “fire borrowing” and fund wildfires like natural disasters, rather than a single line item in the budget. Fire money is currently allocated at a 10-year average cost, but since the expense keeps rising, it’s almost never enough.
“Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent — or maybe even more — which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in statement in September. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires…. That’s wrong, and that’s no way to manage the Forest Service.”
Congressional efforts to change the funding system have gone virtually nowhere. At least two attempts have fallen victim to partisanship, and fiscal conservatives in key committee positions have resisted the change, leery of runaway disaster payments that aren’t subject to budget constraints.
Filling the gaps
Last year, Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, was in a meeting that included a Forest Service trails manager.
Athearn, whose group runs volunteer trail maintenance projects on Colorado’s most popular peaks, recalled mentioning that he expecting 20 or so seasonal employees that year. The Forest Service official was taken aback, as Athearn remembers.
“He was like, ‘My God, that’s more than all of the trail employees in the entire region,’” Athearn recalled. “So that gives you an idea of how stretched this agency is both in terms of personnel and funding.”
Fire borrowing complicates planning and can mothball projects, but the money is eventually repaid. Budget cuts, inflicted in small increments over a decade, are not. Over time, they have squeezed the resources of National Forest programs, charged with managing increasingly popular recreation lands in a rapidly growing state.
White River, which has seen its budget shrink from more than $30 million 13 years ago to approximately $16 or $18 million this year, has been forced to leave positions vacant for lack of funding and scrounge for savings wherever it can.
“There will be some gaps, for sure,” Fitzwilliams said.
Since many of the lands White River manages bring in minimal fee revenue, it can be difficult to keep up with rising maintenance demand. The forest brings in tens of millions of dollars in fees from ski areas, but that money doesn’t stay in White River, going instead to the U.S. Treasury Department.
“Every year they’re seeing decreases and every year we’ve seen increases in terms of visitor numbers for the White River National Forest, “ Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said at a recent meeting of the Forest Health Task Force in Frisco. “From the county perspective, if we got cut by that much it would be catastrophic for our community, and I think we’re going to see it be catastrophic for our natural resources in this region, potentially, if we continue to see these decreases.”
White River will not have too much trouble this year funding its highest priorities, including recreation, vegetation programs and fuels reduction, Fitzwilliams said. But until a final budget is settled, he won’t have a clear idea of what programs might need to be trimmed.
“Our forest gets a pretty sizable recreation budget, so I don’t complain too much,” he said. “But it’s trails, it’s land, it’s wildlife and fisheries and things like where we have to make some prioritizations and tradeoffs.”
Increasingly, the Forest Service relies on volunteer help to maintain its recreation lands. In Summit County, groups like the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District have been making up for trail maintenance and education cutbacks.
Recently, the organization partnered with CFI to fix up the Quandary Peak Trail, which now sees an estimated 20,000 hikers a year.
“If you cut something by 10 percent each year it whittles it down, and that’s what we’re faced with,” said Mike Connolly, executive director of FDRD since 2014. “I would say over the past four years, I’ve definitely seen greater need and we’ve bringing more and more volunteers out to help us work on the trails.”
Fire seasons are becoming more unpredictable and destructive, adding to the Forest Service’s soaring suppression bills. But money for managing growing trail use and recreation areas is dwindling.
“Increasingly, most of the work that happens on the ground is done by partners who are engaging volunteers, partners who are raising private money to hire employees,” Athearn said. “There’s a necessity to outsource a lot of that work that used to be done by the agencies to nonprofits.”
Managing those volunteers imposes some costs on the Forest Service, but those are dwarfed by the benefits.
“Our partners are literally life savers for keeping this place going,” Fitzwilliams said. “They are the lifeblood of what we get done. It used to be white hat work, and it used to be nice to do. Now it’s essential to do, and I’m eternally grateful for that. But it has a limit.”
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