The Wildfire Burden

The Billion-Dollar Question Public Land Seizure Proponents Still Cannot Answer

By Greg Zimmerman, Deputy Director

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Conservative politicians in Western states continue to promote efforts to dispose of U.S. public lands into state and private hands. But ever since this modern day version of the Sagebrush Rebellion appeared nearly five years ago, proponents of “transferring” public lands have failed to answer even the most basic question about their proposal: how will states afford to protect communities from wildfire that occurs naturally across the West?

This fundamental question is top of mind as wildfire has flared up in Western states during this past summer. The Center for Western Priorities first analyzed this issue in 2014. What follows is an update to the original report, which finds that between 2009 and 2015 the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) alone has spent over $6 billion suppressing wildfire in Western states.

Western states include Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming

Money to pay wildfire suppression costs — not to mention funding critical efforts to reduce wildfire risk, along with the necessary equipment, infrastructure and added personnel — will have to come from somewhere. States taking on these costs would place a significant burden on their cash-strapped budgets, with one bad fire season risking a state’s financial solvency.

By endorsing any proposal to take control of U.S. public lands, Western state politicians are committing their states to the liabilities and costs associated with managing public lands, including fighting wildfire. It is important for taxpayers to understand the significant impacts these proposals would have on state budgets, not least of which is suppressing wildfire.

But land seizure proponents across the West are conveniently silent on how they intend to fund wildfire protection and suppression without help from the U.S. government, without selling off lands, without raising taxes, and without raiding important parts of a state’s budget, such as K-12 education. This question needs to be answered before policymakers waste any more time or effort promoting public land seizures.

Wildfire is part of life in the Western U.S.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

In eleven Western states, the U.S. government manages over 350 million acres of public lands — which includes handling the firefighting duties — with the Department of the Interior (DOI) overseeing more than 200 million acres and the Forest Service overseeing more than 140 million acres (the Department of Defense oversees an additional 10 million acres in the West). Two-thirds of all forests in the West lie on public lands and so a majority of wildfires occur on public lands.

The USFS and agencies within DOI spend billions of dollars each year fighting fire across the West. Last year alone, Congress appropriated over $3.5 billion to the USFS and DOI to prepare for, suppress, and rehabilitate lands after wildfire; in 2014 that number was close to $4 billion.

Wildfire is a natural part of Western ecosystems, but a number of factors have led to larger and more costly wildfires, including:

  • A warming climate resulting in hotter, drier summers and longer fire seasons
  • Housing development moving into forested, fire-prone areas
  • The widespread buildup of fuels due to historic management practices

Dating back to 1960, the nine largest fire years by acres burned have all occurred since 2000. In the past decade, annual appropriations for federal wildfire suppression and protection have more than tripled the funding levels since the 1990s.

Over the last thirty years, USFS and DOI spending on wildfire suppression has more than doubled. Between 1985 and 1989, the USFS and DOI spent an average of $745 million (in real 2015 dollars) fighting wildfire on public lands each year. From 2010–2015, the U.S. land management agencies spent an average of nearly $1.6 billion annually fighting wildfire. These figures do not account for the billions spent each year on wildfire preparedness, hazardous fuel reductions, and post-fire rehabilitation.

Data source: National Interagency Fire Center | Note: All values adjusted for inflation to 2015 real dollars (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

How Much Does the U.S. Forest Service Spend Each Year Fighting Wildfire?

Upon request by the Center for Western Priorities, the USFS provided data (complete dataset) showing the agency’s wildfire suppression spending by state in recent years. The data highlights the billions spent just by the USFS fighting fires in Western states between 2009 and 2015.

Across the Western U.S. the USFS spent over $6 billion suppressing wildfire in recent years. Any given year in any given Western state, a mega fire can consume hundreds of millions of dollars. For example, in 2011 the USFS spent $230 million fighting wildfires in Arizona; in 2012, the agency spent $103 million suppressing fire in Montana and $92 million in Colorado; in 2015 it was $153 million in Idaho and $183 million in Washington. This annual spending by the Forest Service is regularly larger than what any given state spends on law enforcement.

Again, the spending represented in the chart above is only a fraction of the total spent annually by the U.S. government to protect communities from wildfire. Not included in the $6 billion estimate is the significant spending by the Department of the Interior to fight wildfire on Bureau of Land Management lands, or the billions more spent by the USFS on wildfire preparedness, rehabilitation, and hazardous fuels reductions.

Efforts to “transfer” American public lands are a boondoggle, not a panacea

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Wildfires — and sometimes really big wildfires — are a natural feature on Western lands. Westerners learned this the hard way during the Big Burn of 1910, which burned 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana, destroyed towns, and killed at least 78 firefighters.

The 1910 wildfires precipitated a national policy of suppressing all wildfire, rather than letting some burn naturally. This policy, alongside a warming climate and more people living near fire prone landscapes, has increased the difficulty and cost of fighting wildfire.

Those promoting the wholesale disposal of U.S. public lands, like Utah State Representative Ken Ivory, like to say that states will somehow manage forests differently — like a backyard garden — so fires are no longer a problem. For example, Rep. Ivory has said states could “actually provide forest management where we actively tend the forest garden” and “a healthy garden (forest) is a productive garden, and a productive garden is a healthy garden.”

Such claims display a fundamental misunderstanding of the ecology of Western forests and the economics of forest management and restoration.

The reality is that if the U.S. government were to “transfer” national forests and other public lands to the states, it would also be transferring the costs and liabilities of managing those lands. Not a single proponent of this idea has explained how states would finance the wildfire burden. Would they sell off public lands? Raise fees on ranchers and other public lands users? Rapidly increase the pace and scale of industrial development on public lands? Would they compromise other important uses of public lands like hunting, hiking, and camping?

Even after years of questioning, land transfer proponents have yet to provide an answer to these fundamental questions, which raises another question: Why?

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