The administration has released its proposed budgets for fiscal year 2021 which begins October 1. If approved by Congress exactly as written, which is unlikely, the wildland fire budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and the four land management agencies in the Department of the Interior would increase.
Combined, the DOI agencies’ fire budgets would increase by 5%, while the FS fire budget could see a 2% bump.
The overall budget for the FS would remain about the same as this fiscal year, but the DOI agencies could see their overall budgets decrease by 3% to 20%. Below are the proposed changes in the total budgets and full time equivalent staff years for the DOI agencies:
- National Park Service: -14%, -5%
- Fish & Wildlife Service: -3%, -0.4%
- Bureau of Indian Affairs: -10%, -10%
- Bureau of Land Management: -20%, +3%
The FS did not specify their changes in full time equivalent staff years.
These numbers are what the departments and agencies are suggesting for FY 2021 with the approval or at the direction of the White House. As the budget goes through the appropriation process it will change. But as Congress continues to turn over more and more of their authority to the President, we may see fewer this time.
You can read the FY 2021 Budget Briefs by the two Departments. “Brief” may not be the most accurate choice of words, with the DOI document reaching 237 pages and the Department of Agriculture’s totaling 112 pages.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 provided new budget authority to fight wildfires, known as the “fire fix.” Beginning this year, FY 2020 and continuing through 2027, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior will have new budget authority available when Suppression funding has been exhausted. This budget authority is $2.35 billion in 2021 (of which $2.04 billion is allocated to the Forest Service) and increases by $100 million each year through 2027. In a busy fire year this will reduce the “borrowing” of funds from non-fire programs, and make fire programs more self-sufficient.
Both budget documents mention fuel management, active forest management, and timber salvage many times, reflecting what is often heard from White House personnel.
The Joint Fire Science Program which has been zeroed out in the budget recommendations in the two previous years, but later funded by Congress, is listed to receive $3 million, which would be the same as it actually received in FY 2020.
The DOI has a $28 million “Plan to Transform the Firefighting Workforce,” a $28.0 million investment to hire more full-time professionals. The budget will also enable Interior to extend the duration of temporary hires and career seasonals as the program seeks administrative authority to extend the duration of temporary hires. Here is an excerpt from the budget proposal:
Interior’s ability to recruit and train full-time fire personnel has steadily declined, leaving the program excessively dependent on temporary personnel and contractors, a workforce model incompatible with a fire season that has now become a fire year, with larger, costlier, and more complex fires. The requested funding will strengthen DOI’s ability to maintain its initial-attack success rate and provide effective wildfire response throughout the fire year.
The FS, which contracts for all large air tankers, very large air tankers, and Type 1 helicopters, only mentioned aviation very briefly in the document, saying they will “…continue to right-size its aviation assets, evaluating the best mix of asset types and ownership models to provide the necessary aviation capability.” No details were given about the number or types of aircraft they plan to use for homeland security — fighting fires. This it too important an issue to avoid.
In recent years, the meaningless term “right-size” has been synonymous with down-size. Having only 11 to 13 large and very large air tankers on exclusive use contracts is far fewer than is needed.
In some of the past Congressional budget hearings, occasionally a Congressman or Senator has asked pointed questions about the fire budget, but only rarely are followup questions asked when the agency person gives a vague response.
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Author: Bill Gabbert
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