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Lawmakers have not increased the Forest Service budget as firefighting costs have gone up, so basic Forest Service programs have suffered, according to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

A USDA analysis released Wednesday shows that fighting wildfires now requires around $2 billion a year or 42 percent of the Forest Service budget, compared with 16 percent in 1995.

Climate change has caused drought and warmer temperatures that have lengthened the fire season by 60 to 80 days. Recent wildfires have been bigger and more numerous, burning around 7 million acres each year, double what it was in 1995.

In addition, firefighters have to spend a greater proportion of their time defending an increasing number of houses in the wildland-urban interface.

“In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combatting fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago. This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a release.

Each year, Congress appropriates money for fighting wildfires, but those funds have been insufficient in nine out of the past 10 fire seasons. Once the firefighting account is drained, Vilsack has to dip into other Forest Service funding.

Robert Bonnie, USDA undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, said such “fire borrowing” has both short- and long-term effects.

In the short-term, projects are put on hold for months and sometimes canceled if they are partly dependent on other funds or partnerships that have time limits.

Ironically, some of those projects could reduce fire risk by thinning overgrown stands and reducing hazardous fuels.

The projects are eventually repaid, but often the money is returned after the field season is over, so a year's work can be lost, Bonnie said.

The report released Wednesday shows the long-term effects on the make-up and priorities of the Forest Service.

Since the five-year trend has been for Congress to pass deeper budget cuts while criticizing agency performance, managers initiate fewer restoration, conservation or research projects, anticipating that they'll have to surrender their project money to fight fires.

“One of the priorities over the last five years has been to increase the pace and scale of restoration in our national forests. We have, on average, produced more timber over the past five years than we have before,” Bonnie said. “But since we've had to shift resources away from forest management and restoration, we've got fewer resources that we need to do those activities.”

In 1995, around 6,000 were in full-time firefighting positions and 18,000 worked in forest-management jobs. Now, firefighting and forest-management positions employ around 12,000 people each.

The Forest Service has a backlog of more than $5.5 billion worth of maintenance projects, from trail restoration to dam repairs, because the budget for such work has been cut by 95 percent.

The land-management planning budget, which supports the development of new forest plans, has been cut by almost two-thirds. That could affect the upcoming Gallatin Forest Plan due to be updated in 2016.

That's why the Department of the Interior is encouraging passage of the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. The act would treat wildfires like any other disaster and allow Vilsack to dip into funds already set aside for the Federal Emergency Management Agency rather than Forest Service programs.

Led by the Idaho delegation, most western Congressmen support the act, which has identical versions in both the House and the Senate.

But the House bill languished after Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., claimed it would increase federal spending.

Bill sponsor Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, insisted that overall spending levels would remain the same and the only thing that changed was the source of the emergency spending.

American Forest Foundation Vice President Rita Hite said some eastern Congressmen aren't supportive because they see the issue as a western problem. Wildfires occur mainly in the public lands of the West, and they incorrectly assume that the money comes out of only western forest projects, Hite said.

“This is an eastern issue. Two-thirds of the forests in the U.S. are owned by private landowners, mostly in the East, and they have their own issues, like invasive species. What we've seen with the fire-borrowing issue is that the resources that could help landowners in the East are going toward fire,” Hite said.

Hite said some of those opposed say they're worried about how it might affect the budget in the future and what precedent might be set if such a fund was created.

“No one is objecting to the need to fix the problem,” Hite said. “The devil's in the details of how you fix the problem.”

Since it's caught up in politics, the bill probably won't pass before the elections but it could move in a lame-duck session if it could get enough support, Bonnie said.

“It's pretty likely that (Congress) will pass some sort of continuing resolution before the election, so hopefully it will be attached to that,” Hite said.

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Laura Lundquist can be reached at or at 406-582-1234.

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