Forest Service steps up restoration efforts in 2015

Colorado aspens
Restoration work needed across 65 million acres of national forest lands.

With wildfire costs soaring, agency takes funds from other programs

Staff Report

U.S. Forest Service officials said they were able to step up the pace of restoration projects in 2015 despite facing tough budget challenges during a record wildfire season.

Despite the gains, at least 65 million National Forest System acres are still in need of restoration, agency leaders said, explaining that the rising cost of wildfire suppression has taken funding away from restoration, watershed and wildlife programs, limiting the Forest Service’s ability to do the work that would prevent fires in the first place.

In 2015, the Forest Service spent a record 52 percent of its budget on fighting wildfires, compared to just 16 percent in 1995. Before a single fire broke out, the Forest Service started the fiscal year with a budget of $115 million less for all work not related to fire than the previous year.

Budget constraints have also reduced staffing for restoration, watershed and recreation by nearly 40 percent, from about 18,000 in 1998 to fewer than 11,000 people in 2015.

“The Forest Service has made tremendous progress in conducting restoration work to keep our forests healthy and resilient. However, because of the growing cost of fighting more frequent and dangerous wildfires, much of the work that supports healthy forests is being starved” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack explained in a year-end release.

“The magnitude of the crisis demands that we cannot go another year without a solution to the Forest Service’s broken fire budget. There is broad agreement that we need to fix the way we pay for wildfires. We have provided Congress with a straightforward solution to enable us to do the work we need to do and now it is up to Congress to act.”

The agency’s shows that, in 2014 the Forest Service treated more than 4.6 million acres, an area larger than New Jersey and an increase of 9 percent, or 400,000 acres, compared to restoration activities performed in 2011. These treatments reduced the potential impact of future wildfires and produced 2.8 billion board feet of timber volume, enough for 93,000 single-family homes, compared to 2.5 billion board feet in 2011.

Some other highlights contained in the report include:

  • The agency helped facilitate investment in more than 230 wood-to-energy projects with a combined investment of nearly $1 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees since 2009.
  • Since 2011, the Forest Service has restored 1.2 million acres of insect and disease-infested forests, resulting in 470,000 green tons of biomass.
  • Since 2012, the Forest Service has identified more than 300 priority watersheds and completed restoration work to improve the condition of 53 of those watersheds.
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