September 30, 2008

Fire Season Forces $400M in Cuts at Forest Service

By Trevor Hughes

The cost of fighting summer wildfires in California and the West has forced U.S. Forest Service officials to slash more than $400 million in spending, causing closures of some campgrounds and limiting access to some forests.

While the number of fires and acreage involved is down, the amount spent to contain those fires is up. That's because the cost of fighting fires varies depending on where the fires are burning, said Forest Service spokeswoman Donna Drelick.

The Forest Service slashed $200 million in 2006 and $100 million in 2007 to cover wildfire costs, the agency's budget documents show. Forest Service administrators say the latest reductions will have a broad impact across the country:

*In Vermont and other sites in the Northeast hit by heavy rains, washed-out trails and bridges aren't being repaired, and campgrounds are being closed, said Kristi Ponozzo, spokeswoman for the Green Mountain National Forest.

*In Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia and Arkansas, road and trail maintenance will be halted or delayed, limiting access into forest areas and increasing the amount of sediment washed into lakes, rivers and reservoirs, said Mike D'Aquino of the U.S. Forest Service in Georgia.

*In Montana, research about how wildfires behave, conducted in partnership with the University of Montana, is being cut, said Dave Tippets, a spokesman for the service's 14-state Rocky Mountain Research Station.

G. Sam Foster, head of the station, said the cuts will affect research into the pine bark beetle epidemic in the Rockies. Rangers will close campgrounds and declare some roads and trails off-limits because of the danger of dead, falling trees, he said.

"The impacts will be far reaching and will affect all parts of the Forest Service's budget, making it hard for the agency to accomplish much beyond the most minimal aspects of its many responsibilities," said Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Chris Lancette, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, urged the Forest Service and Congress to consider creating a firefighting account structured in the way hurricane and other disaster-recovery projects are funded. Udall endorsed that idea.

As of Sept. 14, the National Interagency Fire Center reported, 67,269 fires had burned 4.67 million acres this year. The Forest Service expects to spend $1.6 billion to contain wildfires this year.

Hughes reports for the Fort Collins Coloradoan (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>