Steve Bull, a veteran trail worker on the Bitterroot National Forest, has done it all during his 23 years on the job. He's built bridges, blasted rocks and packed mules in the narrow canyons of the Bitterroot Range. He says it's hard work and it is getting harder because of ongoing budget constraints.
Bull's trail budget suffers from a practice known as "fire borrowing," which involves the U.S. Forest Service transferring money out of other agency programs to cover the costs of fighting wildfires. "When they pull money it makes it more difficult," Bull says. "But we have been underfunded my whole career. We don't have enough money to do the job. It's not even close."
Late last summer, as wildfires raged in the arid West, top Forest Service brass realized that their congressionally appropriated fire suppression budget was dwindling fast as the fiscal year neared its end. On Aug. 16, Forest Service Service Chief Tom Tidwell sent out a memo to regional foresters, station directors and deputy chiefs.
"As predicted this year's fire season has led to costs that exceed appropriated fire suppression funds," he wrote. "Once again we must now transfer funds from other accounts to make up the difference."
Shortly thereafter, the agency transferred $505 million from a variety of programs, with $97 million "borrowed" from discretionary programs like roads, trails and recreation. The Bitterroot National Forest lost more than $16,000 from its already tight trails budget.
"That's not a lot of money, but that could pay for a couple people," says Bull, who oversees the forest's seven-person trail crew. "That's significant."
The agency says it tries to borrow money that has not yet been devoted to specific project work. It eventually repaid the money it borrowed from the Bitterroot, but not until the field season was over.
Since 2002, the Forest Service more than $3 billion from roads, trails and other programs and funds nationwide to help finance its firefighting operations, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Thanks to the ever-growing cost of wildland firefighting, there were seven major fire transfers in the last 12 years. In 2012, firefighting efforts borrowed $45,000 from the Lolo National Forest trail budget alone.
"When you look at the challenges that we are facing now, with heavy accumulations of hazardous fuels, long-term drought in many areas, climate change, the insect disease infestations, the non-native species, all those things make fires bigger, our fire seasons longer and fires more difficult to control," says Jennifer Jones, NIFC's public affairs specialist. "That, combined with the funding formula we have in place, has led many times over the last 10 years to the exhaustion of fire suppression funding."
But natural phenomena are not the only cause of increased fire spending and frequent fire borrowing, says Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. The increases also result from agency policy and the high cost of contractors and other on-the-ground expenditures.
"The major problem is that the federal agencies, especially the Forest Service, have a suppression-centric fire management policy that basically says we must fight fire in all places at all times and at all cost," says Ingalsbee. "In addition, a lot of money is going to for-profit contractors for renting their aircrafts and vehicles and heavy equipment and all the other services and supplies."
The Gold Pan fire, which burned on approximately 43,000 acres in and around the Bitterroot National Forest this summer, is an example. The fire mostly burned in designated wilderness areas, but the Forest Service still spent more than $11 million to manage the blaze. The amount spent on that single fire was more than 20 times the Bitterroot's 2013 trail budget.
Dave Campbell, the recently retired West Fork district ranger who responded to the fire in its early stages, says that air support was the major expense.
"We used helicopters to drop water on the fire," says Campbell. "I think the helicopter costs were the big costs. Those are very expensive machines to operate." Hourly costs for air tankers and helicopters range from $2,350 to $12,000, according to Jones at NIFC.
Until recently, the Forest Service tried to let wildfires burn if they were in wilderness areas far from human settlement. That changed in 2012 when the agency released a Wildfire Guidance memo that promoted "safe aggressive initial attack," noting that "this is not a desirable approach in the long run" but necessary to keep costs in check. That summer the agency more aggressively put out blazes in their early stages, and to this day its policy on wildfire suppression remains unclear.
"Contradictory statements by the USFS' Washington office, a wildland fire response protocol that includes a slew of new planning requirements for fire use, and the [Forest Service] Chief still boasting that over 98% of all wildfires are suppressed have left many people wondering: what is the agency's policy direction?" wrote Ingalsbee in a recent press release.
One thing is certain: Increased firefighting and the prevalence of fire borrowing impacts all forest users.
"If you remove funds from a trail account then you can't clear the trail and that affects the users that want to hike that trail and want to get into the wilderness," Campbell says. "If you have to cut back on recreation funds then there might be people adversely affected there as well."
Steve Bull agrees.
"The trail system, in my opinion, is in a state of decline," he says. "If we are not funded appropriately to do what we need to do, if we are not maintaining it, then it decays."
This year the federal government spent $1.74 billion on fire suppression nationwide. It was the fifth most expensive year on record.