Thursday, March 13, 2008

Funding Fire Control

I live in a 20 year loblolly pine plantation in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Fire has long been a part of life here. From the fire ecosystem implemented by Indians centuries ago to the cooperative (S.C. Forestry Commission, U.S. Forest Service, International Paper and Westvaco Corp.) fire control efforts of a decade ago, fire has been an important part of life and forest management here. As industry disposed of it's timberland, the burden shifted to the Forestry Commission and, to a lesser degree, the U. S. Forest Service (Francis Marion National Forest). As smoke related lawsuits from prescribed burning increased, prescribed burning declined and fuel loads have increased. This all has happened in the face of declining budgets for both fire control organizations. What has happened in the Lowcountry is a microcosim of the situation in the entire South and, to a lesser degree, the entire nation.

In recommendations to the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies regarding the FY2009 Budget for the U.S. Forest Service, George M. Leonard - Chairman, Board of Directors, National Association of Forest Service Retirees had this to say:

"The most critical issue that needs to be addressed in the Forest Service budget is the funding of fire suppression. The current procedure of including the ten-year average cost of fire suppression within the agency’s discretionary budget is destroying the capability of the Forest Service to carryout the remainder of its statutory missions. From 25 percent in FY2000, fire funding is now approaching 50 percent of the budget. The suppression cost trend means the ten-year average is going to continue to grow, further cannibalizing funding for other programs. While the overall Forest Service budget has increased nine percent over the last six years, the diversion of funds to fire suppression has had a major impact on the workforce available to carry out the multiple-use mission of the agency. The number of foresters, biologists, and other resource specialists, along with supporting technicians, is a good measure of the capability of a resource management agency to carry out its mission. As illustrated in the following table, the capability of the Forest Service has been seriously compromised."

You get the point, but if you want to read more, go here.

The SC Forestry Commission's situation is equally as bad, perhaps worse. Here are a few facts.

When adjusted for inflation, the current budget is 30% less than it was in 2001.
• Aging firefighting equipment is not being replaced on a timely schedule.
• Fuel costs are soaring.
• Hiring and retaining qualified firefighters is difficult due to a more urban economy and changing demographics.
• Forest industry changes have led to a loss of cooperator capacity, both personnel and equipment.
• Recent housing development has expanded into wooded areas, creating communities with very high fire risk.
• Forestry has a tremendous impact on SC’s economy: #1 employer, #2 payroll, #1 harvested crop, $1 billion in exports, $17 billion total economic impact.
• The Commission’s $18 million baseline budget investment is supporting a $17 billion industry economic impact, a multiplier of almost 1000.

If you have a home in SC, or own/manage timberland here, now would be a good time to contact your Senators in support of this years budget request, in particular, the members of the Senate Finance sub-committee responsible for reviewing the request. Those are Senators Yancy McGill from Williamsburg county, Larry Grooms from Berkeley county, Phil Leventis from Sumter county, and John Drummond from Greenwood county. By the way, these senators have been very supportive of forestry and fire control. Something to keep in mind the next time you go to the polls!

This post may appear to be somewhat local in nature but be assured that the words that you have read apply right outside your door, to your timberland and to your National Forest as well. What are you going to do about it? --Brian

1 comment:

  1. One aspect of all the fire suppression funding debates is that the issue is not being looked at in the manner that insurance companies and fire appraisers do. Instead of fire suppression costs alone, adjusters and appraisers calculate cost-plus-loss. Fires consume more than suppression expenses; they also do damage to equity and resources, known as loss. The economic utility of fire suppression is minimization of cost-plus loss.

    Many in Congress think we could "save money" by allowing fires to burn with little or no suppression expense, but in advocating such they fail to consider losses. Potential cost-plus-loss is the proper way to evaluate fire suppression funding. It is frustrating to me that improper accounting dominates the debate. If your home or woodlot burns down, the loss is much more than the outlay to the Fire Dept. No doubt you and your insurer understand this. I wish Congress and state fire commissions did.