This past month, the two sides of the aisle in Congress set aside their often-paralyzing differences to pass a sweeping omnibus appropriations bill for the entire federal government, including budgets for all of the programs set as priorities by state foresters. In a time when program budgets are generally taking a hit across the board, forestry supporters were able to push Congressional members to retain or increase funding levels for several critical functions such as state fire assistance, urban & community forestry and protecting working forests.
Most notably, thanks in part to the advocacy efforts of the Southern Group of State Foresters and our partners, the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program, colorfully known as the nation’s “tree census,” saw a funding boost of $5 million. FIA has been the essential tool since its inception in the 1930’s for tracking changes on the landscape in forest cover and structure, wildfire risk, wildlife habitat and more. The increase in funding means that changes on the southern forest landscape will be able to be tracked in a timely, more effective manner, signifying successful engagement by state foresters in an often opaque federal budgeting process.
Unfortunately, members of Congress missed a critical opportunity to address some much-needed reform to the current method of budgeting for wildfires. Just 20 years ago, fire costs accounted for only 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s total budget nationally, but they have since ballooned to more than 50 percent in 2015. The increasing costs of fire suppression have resulted in detrimental impacts on other Forest Service programs, including state and private forestry and federal land management programs. As weather patterns change and wildfire seasons become longer and more costly, it is becoming clear that a portion of wildfires - the large and catastrophic ones - need to be treated as natural disasters from a budgeting standpoint to address these negative impacts. Given the ecologic and fiscal ramifications of not addressing this issue, helping to find a fix for the current outdated system of fire budgeting will be one of the top policy priorities for SGSF this year.
As always, the core mission of our policy work is keeping southern forests and the benefits they provide in front of the policymakers and the managers of our federal dollars. While we did enjoy some successes during the recent federal budget process, there is still much work to be done to ensure Congressional support for sustainable and vibrant forests for generations to come. That’s why contacting your elected officials and imploring them to continue to ensure that our forests remain a funding priority is never a bad idea.