Wildlife Funding Diverted to Fight Wildfires

Wolf pup
Wolf pup rescued from Funny River Fire in Alaska. Flickr: USDAgov
Just last month, fire crews rescued a group of wolf pups from the almost 200,000 acre Funny River Fire in Alaska. Firefighters found the puppies in the blaze after hearing them yipping, and they are now being cared for at the Alaska Zoo.

Large wildfires can directly impact the wildlife that depend on our public lands and open spaces for habitat. Yet the money diverted to fight fires from other public lands program, including many designed to benefit fish and wildlife, may pose an even greater threat.

Each year, the federal government spends billions of dollars on wildfires—an ever growing amount as climate change and a history of fire suppression affect the size and frequency of fires. Where does all that money come from?

Last week, the USDA Forest Service provided an answer to that question in a new report highlighting programs on a state-by-state basis that faced cuts or delays when the agency had to dip into their funds to support wildfire activities.

Over at High Country News, Jodi Peterson has an excellent blog post highlighting some of the impacts from shifting funds to wildfire in the West. Here are a few of the effects on wildlife-related programs from the Forest Service report:

  • In Oregon, a $192,000 road project on the Siuslaw National Forest could not be completed, resulting in negative effects on water quality for streams with threatened Coho salmon.
  • In New Mexico, the Forest Service did not complete a 1,100 acre acquisition of critical habitat for the Zuni Bluhead Sucker, a fish proposed for endangered species protection.
  • In Vermont, a $105,000 partnership with state agencies and non-federal stakeholders on bird habitat was cancelled.
  • In Colorado, over $300,000 in wildlife management projects saw delays, deferrals, or cancellations in 2012.
  • In Indiana, the West Branch Aquatic Organism Passage project, designed to restore high quality fish and wildlife habitat on the Hoosier National Forest, went uncompleted.

These programs are examples of the kind of positive work that can occur on public lands to benefit fish and wildlife. Yet they cannot live up to their potential when their budget is under constant threat of going up in flames.

Can we change how the government funds wildfire response?

The 2014 Orange Blossom Fire in Florida. Flick: USDAgov, photo by USFS
The 2014 Orange Blossom Fire in Florida. Flickr: USDAgov
The USDA Forest Service and the Department of Interior anticipate that wildfires this year could cost $1.8 billion, almost a half billion dollars more than they currently have budgeted. Adequately responding to fires this summer would mean again taking away from valuable programs that benefit wildlife and can help prevent future large-scale fires.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, currently in Congress, and the President’s proposed budget would change how we pay for wildfires. These commonsense reforms would create a system where we would pay for wildfires with the same emergency funds that we use for other natural disasters while protecting other budget priorities.

President Obama recently spoke to the Western Governor’s Association about this proposal, and received an enthusiastic response.

“This new approach to budgeting would take a more realistic look at what it’s going to cost to fight fires, set that amount of money aside in the budget, and if we go over it tap emergency disaster dollars instead of robbing the dollars that would be used to deal with fuels on the ground and other means of preventing fire as opposed to just fighting it. So, I’m hopeful that we’ll see whether that can pass Congress, and that if it does we’ll be able to fight fire before it happens, not [just] after.” – South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard

Please ask your Congressional representative to show their support for this commonsense approach to fighting catastrophic wildfires by becoming a cosponsor of this legislation.

Take ActionCall the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask for your Congressional representative’s office.  Ask to speak to the member of the staff who works on environmental, agricultural or appropriations issues. Tell them you would like your representative to become a cosponsor of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014.