Here's a draft of our Tuesday editorial:
The federal debt crisis is bad — and getting worse. The same goes for the state of America’s overgrown and fire-prone forests.
This year, the problems are directly related, and the parallels are clear.
Because Congress has failed to come up with a meaningful budget solution — kicking the can of the fiscal crisis down the road — the U.S. Forest Service is paying the price. Congress raided $200 million from a Forest Service’s firefighting fund in 2011, and grabbed up another $240 million this year.
That leaves the Forest Service looking for ways to reduce firefighting costs — before they eat into the rest of the agency’s budget. So the Forest Service decided, with little fanfare, to aggressively fight fires from the outset this year. The belief, or the hope, is that the Forest Service can save some money by knocking down fires early.
James Hubbard, the agency’s chief for state and private forestry, conceded the plan’s weaknesses. “I acknowledge this is not a desirable approach in the long run,” Hubbard wrote in a May 25 memo.
That’s for sure.
It is the Forest Service’s equivalent of kicking the can down the road. Suppressing small fires might head off a larger fire, in the short run. But it leaves a “preserved” forest choked with undergrowth that increases the risk of catastrophic fire later.
Forest scientists know this. They know that in order to preserve the health of the forest, natural fires must be allowed to burn whenever possible, in order to prevent the buildup of flammable material.
And so, in a delicious little government irony, the Forest Service is making decisions that may compromise the health of the forest — in order to preserve its budget for initiatives such as “forest health,” the use of logging and prescribed burns to thin out fire-prone lands.
Congress makes a handy scapegoat these days; that’s what befalls an institution with an approval rating that is straining just to remain in double digits. But in this case, the blame belongs to Congress.
Fighting forest fire is a tough and dangerous job, as this year has made painfully obvious. Firefighters will likely spend the rest of the summer just trying to keep fire away from communities such as Featherville and Idaho City — while waiting for the first fall snowstorm, which might finally snuff out the fire season. The death of Anne Veseth, a Moscow student who died this month fighting a small fire in North Idaho, offers a sad reminder of firefighting’s inherent hazards.
Fire managers will never be able to operate in a purely apolitical climate — considering only the tricky balance between protecting lives and property and preserving the natural resource. Politics, and political scrutiny, will forever be part of the landscape. But the least the politicians can do is stop treating the firefighting budget like a piggybank — something they can use to cover for their own failings.