A whole lot of Rocky Mountain Westerners are concerned about President Bush’s recent proposal to cut the U.S. Forest Service budget. Out our way, the land is not an abstraction. The numbers in the Forest Service budget aren’t abstractions, either. They mean something real to our land and to our lives, and a cut of up to 2,700 people in an already beleaguered and understaffed agency is genuine cause for alarm.
For those of us fortunate enough to live anywhere within the eight states of the Rocky Mountain West, the valleys, high plains, deserts and mountains aren’t the stuff of movies. We work, live and play on these lands; we depend on them.
We each have a stake in the stewardship of these lands, and in the guardian of the national forests, the Forest Service. From maintaining trails in the backcountry to fighting ferocious wildfires, the agency oversees multiple tasks on more than 96 million acres in the eight-state Rocky Mountain region.
The president’s proposed budget for 2009 asks this overworked agency to do even more with far less. It would allocate $4.1 billion to the agency—$373 million less than this year’s budget and an 8 percent cut. This is senseless. Bush’s notion of slashing 17 percent from trail maintenance and $13 million from fuels reduction is both foolish and dangerous.
By birthright, each of us has a stake in the Western lands, whether it’s 87 percent of Nevada or 28 percent of Montana. All told, an average of more than 50 percent of the land in these eight Western states is commonly owned, with Forest Service employees acting as our caretakers. Agency employees are not Washington, D.C., desk jockeys—they are our neighbors, friends and relatives. They work on the ground daily to protect this valuable public estate, and their jobs are not easy. Managing such a valued and publicly owned resource is controversial and complex. The public cacophony of both thoughtful suggestions and (often) rude demands has encouraged the Forest Service to become the most ecumenical of all federal agencies.
With the Western wildlands shrinking, it was inevitable that the chorus of demands would grow louder. New homes by the hundreds of thousands are being built right at the edge of the public’s forested land, and this alone has enormous implications for the Forest Service, most particularly its firefighting capabilities. Every year, it seems that more of the West is both fighting and running from raging brush and forest fires.
Yet it is astounding to note that the president’s budget proposal requests 22 percent fewer firefighting dollars than were spent by the Forest Service last year. The administration is basing that portion of the budget on a 10-year average of costs, seemingly oblivious to the reality that the costs of fighting wildfires have increased dramatically, thanks to a warming climate, changes in forest health and rampant development across the West.
Though the president calls for spending $982 million on firefighting, the agency spent $1.4 billion fighting fires last year. Ironically, shortfalls in firefighting budgets force the agency to shift money away from preventing fires, so that now, firefighting consumes nearly half the agency’s budget, leaving everything else starved of support.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have publicly criticized the Bush proposal. “This budget is very frustrating to me,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told reporters. “If I budgeted on my farm the way this is budgeted, I’d never get crops in the ground.”
“It’s critically important that the Forest Service has the resources to prevent wildfires before they happen,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. “It’s too bad we have to spend more money fighting fires than investing in ecological restoration.”
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., succinctly calls the Forest Service budget “an unmitigated disaster.”
These and other critics have no trouble seeing the forest for the trees. The Forest Service needs more support from Congress, not less, and more personnel to do the crucial work of tree thinning and restoration. The combination of increasing demands, budget shortfalls, manipulation by elected officials, and accusations by the radically tinged anti-government elements have resulted in a dizzying jangle of mismatched demands on the agency.
America’s green and vital public estate is our living legacy. Westerners must insist that it not be sacrificed on the altar of the federal budget.
Pat Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). A former Montana congressman, he is the Missoula-based regional director of Western Progress, a nonprofit policy institute.