SACRAMENTO — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack largely defended the federal government’s management of national forests amid criticisms that massive buildups of hazardous fuels have added to wildfires’ intensity.
Vilsack said there’s “no question there’s been more intense fires,” but the total number of fires this summer is down a bit from a normal year. He said his agency is committed to efforts like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, a series of conservation projects on federal lands.
The secretary blamed this year’s budget sequestration for cutting the agency’s funding and said he’ll be working with Congress this fall to establish “a larger and more significant commitment to fire suppression.”
“We are treating more board-feet and we are committed to restoration,” Vilsack told the Capital Press during a conference call with reporters on Aug. 28. “In the meantime we’re going to have to fight these fires aggressively and do it in a way that doesn’t threaten life or limb.”
Vilsack’s comments come as about 50 major wildfires continue to burn throughout the West. Many of them are on U.S. Forest Service land, including the nearly 300-square-mile Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, which has quickly grown into one of the largest wildfires in California history.
The fires have displaced or killed thousands of head of cattle, burned up federal grazing allotments and devastated timberland, prompting many ranchers and timber operators to call for more thinning of forests to reduce fires’ catastrophic effects.
For instance, ranchers suffering significant cattle losses and more than 280,000 acres of burned-out grazing land in the rugged Boise National Forest in Idaho voiced frustration last week with the Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management. They said the government won’t allow grazing and timber cuts, so it just burns.
The fires’ intensity prompted U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Idaho Republican Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo to promise an effort this fall to pass a forest management plan that includes more thinning of overgrown forest stands and proper grazing.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is advancing the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which aims to re-establish a priority for actively managing federal lands through timber production and other measures.
Running out of money to fight wildfires at the peak of the season, the Forest Service recently diverted $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas to use for fire suppression. The nation’s top wildfire-fighting agency was down to $50 million after spending $967 million as of mid-August, according to The Associated Press.
The mandatory budget-cutting measure known as sequestration reduced the Forest Service’s budget 5 percent, forcing cuts of 500 firefighters and 50 engines.
Vilsack said the government should start treating wildfires in the same way it deals with hurricanes and tornadoes. He said fire suppression often has to override prevention activities in the Forest Service’s budget.
“We don’t have to do that in other disaster situations,” he said. “That’s why we’re going to work with Congress, with members of Congress who are concerned about this, to establish a larger and more significant commitment to fire suppression so we don’t have to compromise resources in the Forest Service budget.”