Observer editorial board

Recent news that the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $2 billion fighting forest fires during this summer was troubling.

That’s because the monetary figure is a new record and may be a harbinger of things to come.

We sure hope not. But, let’s face it, western states and the key federal agencies have little recourse right now other than to expect to fight bigger and hotter fires into the future. While a broad-spectrum approach to forest management — including logging — could help alleviate the massive fuel load building up across the forests of the West, the fact is that isn’t going to happen. Any forest management practice or plan is subject to litigation. That means instead of all the special interest groups working together with state and federal officials to find a holistic approach to lowering the fuel loads in our forest, the matter becomes part of a lawsuit in a courtroom.

Meanwhile our forests burn. To the tune of 13,000 square miles this year across the West.

Which brings us back to the only real recourse left: finding a way to better fund forest firefighting. Now, money earmarked for such things as prescribed burns and other fire prevention endeavors is stashed away to be used when budgeted firefighting
dollars run short. Congress establishes the firefighting budget for the Forest Service and the Interior Department based on a 10-year average of wildfire suppression. If there is a miscalculation or an unforeseen severe fire season, the money runs dry. Some critics have rightly argued that the best way to prevent such fires is through prevention, but if efforts collide with the wishes of special interest groups, it is a non-starter.

Congress needs to examine its method of funding for the Forest Service and the Interior Department regarding forest fires. When over a 10-year period the Forest Service and Interior Department run out of money to fight forest fires — as has been the case — it is time to reevaluate the existing structure used to budget for such blazes.

In a perfect world, we could all work together and develop a solid plan that includes an array of prevention efforts — including limited logging — to keep our forest from becoming tinderboxes. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in world where, often, carefully calculated forest management plans are shoved under the spotlight in a courtroom where they linger and eventually either are scrapped or escape so watered down they are useless.

So that means our choices really come down to either letting our forests burn up every summer or finding a better way to fund firefighting across the nation. Congress should move quickly to find a better way.