An overhaul of the U.S. Forest Service's budget appears to be in order.
For several years, as the number of forest fires grow, money for the agency has increasingly gone to fighting the growing number of blazes at the cost of forestry management, trails and other amenities. Yet, in the president's latest budget, the Forest Service would see another slash in spending. That's bad news for Del Norte County, where the Forest Service maintains the Six Rivers National Forest and the neighboring Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon.
There's little doubt that more money needs to go toward fighting forest fires, and certainly the president deserves credit for proposing a 21 percent boost to $911 million.
But that spending increase needs to be accompanied by more dollars for forestry management to reduce the number and size of forest fires in the years ahead. Spending a little more now ultimately will mean that less has to be shelled out later on the Forest Service.
Indeed, forest fires could be dramatically reduced if more thinning and forest health projects occurred. Thinning of Douglas firs, black oak and clearing brush are proven ways of reducing tinder for and ultimately the extent of forest fires. Of course, quality management of our forests won't prevent all fires, but they will greatly reduce the potential for catastrophic ones.
After all, catastrophic fires cost far more to extinguish than taking preventative measures does. The basic expense of firefighting is higher (and more dangerous) than prevention. Loss of property and tourism in smaller, remote communities further raises the cost.
It's true that in 2001 Congress approved a $1.8 billion National Fire Plan to prevent major fires. Unfortunately, because the program is based on matches, it's usually distributed to wealthier communities that can afford to ante up. Increased funding to the U.S. Forest Service for forest management would help correct that inequity.
Forest fires certainly are natural and necessary for renewing ecosystems. But when forests are inadequately managed and so that fires cover tens of thousands of acres, they threaten a wider swath of ecosystem than they should not to mention homes, businesses, and human lives. With the appropriate funding to ensure appropriate management, this need not be the case.