Automatic federal budget cuts could increase risk of wildfires

Absent resolution this week from Congress, across-the-board spending cuts are slated to hit just about everything the federal government does beginning March 1.

Known in some circles as the “sequester,” the policy – enacted in 2011 as part of a deal to address the nation’s debt payments – will take 5.3 percent from domestic discretionary spending, including the U.S. Forest Service portion of the Department of Agriculture budget.

In Nebraska, the across-the-board agency cuts would result in a $1.3 million reduction in clean air and water programs, among other impacts, wrote the Lincoln Journal Star’s Don Walton.

“The sequester does not target or prioritize,” he added.

As a result of this absence of priorities, programs that support preventive steps against wildfires in our nation’s forests will be affected, with $134 million taken out of the U.S. Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Management Program.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, warned of “increased risk to communities from wildfires, with as much as 200,000 fewer acres treated for hazardous fuels.”

Added Sandra Postel of the National Geographic Society: “That means dead trees, dry brush and other fire-starting materials will not be removed.

“That would be worrisome even in a normal year, but in a severe drought it could prove calamitous,” she continued.

Officials have already struggled to keep up with prevention in Colorado and the Mountain West. Abrupt budget cuts would likely make matters worse.

Here’s hoping for a timely solution that gives our hard-working forest professionals the budget certainty they need to do their jobs.

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