Forest Service Budget Pits Forest Management against Fire Suppression

Published August 1, 2003

Ask any district ranger, or any on-the-ground Forest Service employee, and they will tell you the national forests are suffering from a severe budget crunch. Yet the Forest Service’s total budget increased from $3.2 billion in 1991 to $5.3 billion in 2001. Where has all that money gone?

Inflation has halved the value of a dollar since 1980, and it continues at roughly 2 percent per year. But even after adjusting for inflation, the Forest Service’s 2001 budget was its highest in history. Budgets since then, though slightly smaller, are still larger than any prior year.

Table 1
Change in Funding from 1980 to 2002
(after adjusting for inflation)
Research 24%
State & Private Forestry 102%
Fire 253%
National Forest System1 -37%
Construction2 10%
Permanent Funds3 -31%
Trust Funds4 -60%
Total National Forest Management5 -32%
Land Acquisition 197%
Payments to States -30%
Total Forest Service 17%
1 National Forest System includes operating funds for timber, wildlife, recreation, and other national forest and grassland resources.

2 Permanent funds include such things as brush disposal and timber salvage sale funds.

3 Trust funds include such things as Knutson-Vandenberg, road maintenance, and reforestation.

4 Construction was recently changed to include facilities maintenance, so part of the increase (and part of the National Forest System decrease) represents a transfer of funds. Construction also includes construction for research, state & private forestry, and fire, but most is for national forests.

5 For the purposes of this story, Total National Forest Management funding is approximately the sum of National Forest System, Construction, Permanent Funds, and Trust Funds.

The budget increases disguise a massive shift of money–and power–from national forest managers to fire managers. As shown in the accompanying table, funding for the four key budget items for on-the-ground forest management–National Forest System, Construction, Permanent Funds, and Trust Funds–has collectively fallen by nearly a third. The Fire management line item, meanwhile, has increased by more than 250 percent.

Admittedly, some of the fire money will be spent for on-the-ground fuel reduction programs–but this amount is small. In 2002, only $209 million went for fuel reduction, while $1.2 billion went for presuppression, suppression, and rehabilitation of burned areas. Most of the rest went to research or assistance to other agencies (presumably managed by State & Private Forestry).

Forest Managers vs. Fire Suppression Teams

The Thoreau Institute’s 2002 analysis, Reforming the Fire Service, notes there is some tension between national forest managers and the people who lead fire suppression teams. “On one hand, land managers can ignore the effects of their actions on future fire problems because the fires will be taken care of by the firefighting program. On the other hand, the fire commanders may decide to use short-term fire fighting strategies that create or exacerbate long-term management problems.”

In a sense, the U.S. now has two different Forest Services. The National Forest Service focuses on managing the land, while the Fire Service focuses on suppressing fires. In the last few years, the second Forest Service has gained at the expense of the first.

When the budgets of the two are summed, they have remained relatively constant over the past two decades. After adjusting for inflation, the 2002 budget of the two was just 3.6 percent more than the 1980 budget. But the Fire Service budget has ballooned by more than $1.1 billion, while the National Forest Service budget has shrunk by $1.0 billion.

The shift from a National Forest Service to a Fire Service may become even worse with the 2004 budget. President George W. Bush proposed to increase the Fire Service budget by more than $170 million, while keeping the National Forest Service budget about the same. But lawmakers eager to please rural constituents have boosted the Fire Service budget by another $900 million. The fire budget is already larger than the National Forest System budget; the 2004 budget increase would make it larger than the National Forest System, Construction, Permanent Funds, and Trust Funds combined.

A Changing Culture

The funding shift may not be sustainable. The drought that has enveloped the U.S. since 1999 seems to be tapering off. Although the situation in the Rocky Mountains region is still serious enough to lead to a few exciting fires, if the next few years are wetter, Congress will soon lose interest in fire funding.

Yet the change from a National Forest Service to a Fire Service is likely to inflict some permanent changes in the Forest Service culture. While it is too early to tell what the long term will bring, the short term offers some disturbing clues:

  • The Forest Service is learning (or relearning) that it can get more from Congress by milking disasters than by practicing good management.
  • It is learning to focus on expensive–and largely pointless–fuel treatment programs, because they are the best pork it has to offer Congress.
  • It has few incentives to take the right steps to protect structures in the wildland-urban interface. Every time a house burns down, the Service gets a bigger budget.
  • It continues to put firefighters in danger because of the myth that fires can do more damage to forests than to human beings.
  • It continues to neglect what are probably the most valuable national forest resources–recreation, wildlife, fish, and watersheds–because those won’t do much to increase the budget, thanks partly to a few recreationists who self-destructively oppose increased recreation user fees.

The Bush administration, unfortunately, appears to be under the influence of people who hope to turn fuel treatments into timber sales. Congress, meanwhile, is still trying to solve the fire problem by dumping money on it. Neither approach will lead to sound public land management.

Randal O’Toole is a senior economist with the Thoreau Institute. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The Thoreau Institute’s 53-page report, Reforming the Fire Service, is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #12525.