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.

Northern California town explores voluntary tree care program

We have watched with great concern as a number of cities explore shifting responsibility for street tree care from professionals to homeowners.

It’s a shortsighted approach to budget cutting that deprives residents of the benefits of urban forests and ends up costing more later.

Fortunately, the issue – which often runs under the radar and off the front pages – has begun to receive the attention it deserves.

And, some cities are starting to look at creative alternatives. Rather than arbitrary staff reductions or indefinite shits in responsibility, what about some kind of voluntary hybrid?

That’s the approach being pursued by Chico (pictured above), a nature-filled and recreation-oriented Northern California town of 86,000 that is also home to one of the nation’s largest municipal parks.

According to the Chico Enterprise-Record, interested residents can receive a new maple or gingko tree free from the city in exchange for the promise to care for the newly-planted tree for at least three years. By empowering residents who want to participate, resources are freed up for the city’s more than 30,000 existing trees in need of pruning and care.

About two hundreds trees have been planted in the first two years of the program, city officials say.

It’s not a substitute for professional staff – and it remains unfortunate that Chico and cities throughout the country have endured so many layoffs – but it’s an option worth considering and perhaps emulating.