By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune
WASHINGTON, D.C. — All of those dream homes that are sprouting up at the edge of national forests in the West are creating a nightmare for the U.S. Forest Service.
Increasingly, the federal agency is raiding its bank account to douse wildfires at the expense of some of the public's favorite outdoor programs.
A new analysis of the Forest Service budget shows the agency, already staggering under stagnant funding, might soon spend virtually all of its average annual $4.5 billion federal appropriation fighting fires that threaten homes on the rim of national forests.
Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit consulting firm in Bozeman, Mont., which issued the report, found that the nation's taxpayers are bound to spend even more as increasingly affluent Westerners continue to seek solace in wild country subdivisions.
That means the Forest Service amenities the public cares most about — clean campgrounds, sturdy trails, fish-cleaning stations and ranger talks — could go begging, said Ray Rasker, Headwaters executive director and co-author of the report.
"Fire is becoming the big gorilla that is eating all the bananas," Rasker said.
And it could get worse. Houses now stand on 14 percent of the land at the edges of national forests. If 50 percent of the lands on the urban-forest line go to housing, annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion, Rasker's report says.
"It's like the perfect storm," Rasker said. "We've got fuel buildup from the Smokey Bear years. We've got a warming climate and more drought. We've got a lot of insect infestations, so a lot of these forests are dead. And we've got a more prosperous West where people want to live out of town in the woods."
The Forest Service has reported that the cost of firefighting has exceeded $1 billion four times since 2000. Last year, the bill was $1.5 billion.
Already this year, with months of fire season still to go, nearly 65,000 fires have burned almost 7 million acres and cost $1 billion.
Before a new management consciousness took hold in the early 1990s, the agency pushed timber sales — even though it wouldn't make any money — so the agency could build roads, often over-engineering them to reap the maximum budget return. Congress would approve budgets that essentially reimbursed for the road-building costs.
Now fires are the new cash cow, said Peter Morton, a resource economist for the Wilderness Society in Denver. But with a big difference: In the old days, district rangers could keep the money reimbursed for the previous year's costs and parcel out funds for local activities.
But when it comes to fire, "none of that money is available for recreation," Morton said. "It's not going for anything but fire. It might be funding people in the agency, but they're not funding any other program out of firefighting money."
On the contrary, the Forest Service dips into its recreation-program coffers to cover emergency firefighting costs, a practice the agency calls "fire borrowing."
"The old saying is, you throw money at the fire until the weather changes," Morton said.
Western governors are trying to get the feds to separate wildfire money from Forest Service program money. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano teamed up to write an opinion piece published last week in the Montana newspaper, the Missoulian, calling on national leaders to recognize that it makes more sense to "thin forests and protect communities in advance of a wildfire than it is to control wildfires and repair the damage after the fact."
But that doesn't solve what Rasker sees as the central issue: houses in the woods.
"These are houses within 500 meters of a forest that's going to burn," Rasker said. "If we're bashing anybody, we're bashing the county commissioners who allow these homes to be built in harm's way, and the homeowners who don't pay for the costs of firefighting. There's a lack of accountability."
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