Forest Service firefighting budget goes up in smoke | PostIndependent.com
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Forest Service firefighting budget goes up in smoke

Dennis Webb

Fires are burning up the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting budget, forcing the agency to prioritize projects and push some back to the next fiscal year.

The White River National Forest, based in Glenwood Springs, this week issued a list of which nonfirefighting expenditures remain top priorities, which can be delayed, and which fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Some of the projects to be deferred are the South Quartzite timber sale in the Flat Tops, several other timber sales, some mine closure and rehabilitation projects, a bridge on East Maroon Creek Trail, two water system projects, work at Warren Lakes near Aspen, an overlook at Edwards, some prescribed burns, a wetlands project, soil survey work in the Holy Cross Ranger District, and new special-use requests requiring environmental review.

Putting off the projects will allow the Forest Service to spend the money on firefighting.

Nearly two weeks ago, the Forest Service used up the entire $321 million budgeted for nationwide firefighting this fiscal year. It is expected to spend another $645 million by the end of the year.

The Forest Service and Interior Department have the ability to borrow from other accounts to fight fires. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth also told forest supervisors to halt spending not directly related to firefighting through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

“Every forest has been through prioritization of work that has to get done,” said Sue Froeschle, WRNF spokesperson.

WRNF employees received an e-mail Wednesday, signed by WRNF Supervisor Martha Ketelle, ranking priorities and asking employees to suggest further top priorities if they don’t see them already on the list.

“Fire assignments have had a significant impact on the availability of forest personnel to accomplish the forest’s regular program of work,” Ketelle wrote.

The project deferments come at a time when the WRNF already is in a deficit, due to the extra costs of completing its long-range management plan, released in June.

Froeschle said the WRNF hasn’t made staff cutbacks, but has been “judicious” in filling positions, to ensure it has the funding to pay for them. As a result, it is shortstaffed in some areas, such as rangers.

With the new budget restrictions, trail maintenance work also is in doubt, to be completed only if crews are available.

Other mid-level priority projects that may or may not go forward are the Upper Eagle River watershed assessment, prescribed burn site preparations at Booth Creek and Derby Mesa, environmental reviews for the Frisco Nordic Center and Beaver Creek gondola, bird nest box projects, a parking area at Shrine Pass, road closures at Kobey Park, fishing access trails at Yeoman Park, a Colorado River visitor capacity analysis, and Highway 82 erosion control.

Ketelle deemed contract and permit administration as a “mission critical” top priority. This includes timber sale contracts, grazing permits, special use permits, recreation construction projects and oil and gas permits.

Some other top priorities include:

A road analysis process due in January; a travel management plan already delayed by fires; management indicator species analysis, upon which several current environmental reviews hinge; small timber sales needed to keep ski area and other projects moving forward; the Baylor Park timber sale above Sunlight Mountain Resort, in which the WRNF is currently pursuing a settlement offer with the plaintiffs in a lawsuit opposing the sale; and a Roaring Fork fuel reduction project;

Several “mission critical” noxious weed programs; sealing of three gas wells; health- and safety-related work at Chapman Dam; instream flow analysis of Grizzly and No Name creeks in Glenwood Canyon; WRNF involvement in a Colorado Department of Transportation environmental impact statement for the Interstate 70 corridor; a decision whether to approve Bob Congdon’s alabaster mine; safety upgrades at Battlement Reservoir; environmental reviews at Copper Mountain; Maroon Bells trailhead shelter; and Trappers Lake water system work already under contract.

Locally, at least two forest fires have contributed heavily to the Forest Service’s firefighting tab. The Coal Seam Fire, which started June 8 and claimed 29 Glenwood-area homes, has topped $7.2 million in costs and is projected to cost $8 million before it’s over. The Spring Creek Fire north of New Castle has cost some $6 million.

These costs aren’t borne by the WRNF alone, but are shared agencywide. Services such as air support are contracted on a national basis.

Firefighting efforts also occur in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, and it should be noted that the Coal Seam Fire did not occur only on Forest Service land.

Still, the WRNF must contribute its share to firefighting costs, at considerable expense to other projects.

In a fire season that is still early but already setting records for damages and acres burned, western senators urged the Bush administration Tuesday to support additional money needed to fight wildfires in their states.

Nancy Dorn, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, assured senators, “No fires will go unfought this season,” but would not commit to requesting additional firefighting money.

The White House has been negotiating with Senate appropriators since last week over adding the money to an emergency spending bill, but has insisted that any fire money added to the bill be offset with reductions to other areas.

Wildfires have already burned more than 3.3 million acres this year, more than twice the average consumed over the last decade.

Speaking before the House Forests Subcommittee that he chairs, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, said last week, “There’s no question that now or later, Congress is going to have to get its wallet out” to cover the firefighting costs.

He also argued fervently on behalf of forest thinning projects to reduce fire danger.

“If it’s money (for such projects), then Congress needs to find the money, because a dollar spent on fuels treatment is four or five saved on planes and slurry and bulldozers and other suppression-related expenses,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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