Michael T. Rains: Letter to the President

Michael T. Rains, a retired Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service and a board member of the National Wildfire Institute (NWI) shared the following letter with us. It is addressed to President Trump, reiterating the need for a national strategy to confront America’s wildfire crisis. Earlier this year NWI shared such a strategy with the president that can be found here. We think Mr. Rains’ perspective is important, and his thoughts on federal budgeting for wildfire suppression and forest management will be of interest to readers of this blog.

On December 17, 2017 and April 9, 2018, I wrote you letters about the critical state of the nation’s landscapes created by catastrophic wildfires and their impacts to loss of life and property. I discussed a way out. That is, enhanced forest management that enables fire management to eventually become a land conversation tool as opposed to destructive behemoths, especially in the western part of our country. Once again, I want you to be very aware that:

“…the management of America’s forestlands, with a concentration on our National Forests, needs to be emphasized so wildfires can remain smaller and begin again to be a tool for improved forest health as opposed to destructive events that destroy lives, communities and landscapes.”

To do this requires additional funds – at least +$1.3 billion — for the United States Forest Service for the next 3-5 years, minimally. The 2018 “Omnibus Spending Bill” does not include these additional funds nor does the recent Senate and House Action on the proposed 2019 budget. And, respectfully, your 2019 proposed budget was not close to helping address the situation. I am assuming you were not aware of the reason for the current plight. If you knew, I believe you would address the problem much more proactively. Allow me to explain.

In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget. In 2016, for the first time, more than one half of the Forest Service’s annual budget was dedicated to wildfire. Looking to the forecasts for this 2018 fire season, it is safe to say the percentage for fire actions will continue to increase. Simply put, more and more funds of the Forest Service budget will shift to the fire suppression effort. Along with this shift in resources, there has also been a corresponding shift in staff, with about a 40 percent reduction in all non-fire personnel over the last thirty years. This is a key point.

As the fire program gets larger and everything else in the Forest Service becomes smaller, the ability to carry out the land conservation mission has all but stalled. It is easy to see these impacts over the last three decades, especially. Forestlands are not being managed at a pace and scale they need to be in order to remain healthy and more resilient to disturbances – like wildfires. Without adequate management, forest stands become clogged – about twice as much biomass is produced than is removed — and when wildfires happen, the results are large fires with high intensities. In other words, fires that are extremely destructive to everything in their path.

Mother Nature is extremely resilient. But severe fires—especially in ecosystems not suited to severe fire—can and often do completely alter the composition, structure, and functions of forest ecosystems for an extended period. The objective of using fire as a conservation tool is to have wildfires remain low to moderate severity so that the reconstructive effects of fire on the landscape are more immediate versus decades in the making.

Recently, you signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018. This included the “Wildfire and Disaster Funding Adjustment”, whereby additional funds for wildfire emergencies shall be authorized. It is being called the “fire fix.” If actually deployed, these emergency funds could be available beginning in 2020. However, for this year and 2019, the Forest Service can expect more of the same. That is, shifting from management actions to fire suppression. This is called working at cross purposes. Many of the forest management actions that have been and will continue to be reduced [for the fire effort] are the same actions that can help reduce the size and intensity of the fires.

Many are concluding that the “fire fix” will solve all the problems with the admonishment to “…just be patient and in 2020 the problems we now face will disappear.” Mr. President, please know that nothing could be further from reality.

H.R. 1625 does authorize emergency firefighting funds ranging from $2.25 to $2.95 billion, from 2020 to 2027. And the 10-year average for fire suppression—a figure used by the Forest Service for budget-development purposes—will be frozen at the 2015 level of $1.4 billion. For reference, the 10-year average in 2001 was about $475 million.

As I stated earlier, since the late 1980’s, there has been a tremendous decline in forest management work across our country, especially on the National Forests and even more profoundly in the rural areas. Again, everything was being shifted to the fire effort. The “fire fix”, if actually deployed in 2020, would enable this shift to stop. And the percentage of the Forest Service budget for fire control should not increase. All of this is good news.

However, it must be clear, the “fire fix” certainly does nothing to backfill the huge gap that has been created in lost non-fire skills and forest management activities foregone. So, it is critical that this be recognized and new momentum be immediately established for the next step. That is, to deploy a comprehensive forest management strategy so effective fire management can be achieved and sustained. This strategy will require new funds – in the range of +$1.3 to $2.2 billion for the next 3-5 years minimally — to help replenish the skills and work that have been so dramatically shifted away from the Forest Service forest management programs. The 2018 “Omnibus Spending Bill” does not include these additional funds nor does the most recent House and Senate Actions through their Appropriation Subcommittees. Unless these funds are provided for, the “fire fix” will have little to do with helping fire become the conservation tool America’s landscapes require – perhaps especially for the 80 million acres of National Forests that are now considered to be at high-risk from destructive wildfires.

In my earlier letter to you, I provided this quote from a Member of Congress from your party. It deserves repeating: “…It [the “fire fix”] doesn’t solve the problem. Solving the problem is stopping the damn fires, not spending more money to put them out once they get started.” Fundamentally what this statement says is, increased fire management requires aggressive forest management. Otherwise, we simply spend more and more money on controlling wildfires, with no end in sight.

A key feature for improved fire management through enhanced forest management is increasing the current timber harvest level from the National Forests from 3.4 Billion Board Feet (BBF) to at least 6 BBF. The latest Senate Action seems to call for an increase to 4.0 BBF. Unfortunately, this level will not allow for any significant change in forest management, thus improved fire management. The focus will continue to be on fire suppression.

The increase in funds will also allow for an increased level of hazardous fuels to be removed. The current funding level is woefully inadequate. I cannot overstate the importance of this. In the late 1990s, a General Accounting Office (GAO) report noted that “the most extensive and serious problem related to the health of forests in the interior West is the over-accumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires.” When Managing the Impacts of Wildfires on Communities and the Environmentthe National Fire Plan — was written, it was thought that about $850 million annually was required to more effectively address the issue of hazardous fuels removal. More recently, in 2013, the General Accounting Office concluded it would take about $69 billion over a 16-year period—$4.3 billion each year. Relying on taxpayer dollars, the Forest Service has managed an average of about $300 million annually for hazardous-fuels treatment. Thus, with only a fraction of required funds available, focusing work only on the highest-priority areas is fundamental to success.

But, let’s be candid. No amount of targeting will offset this level of funding shortfall. For example, in 2001, there were about 38 million acres on our National Forests considered to be at high risk from destructive wildfires. Now, the estimate is 80 million acres. So, after about $5 billion in expenditures for hazardous fuels treatment, we now have an additional 42 million acres at high risk. To overstate the obvious: you cannot address a problem of this magnitude with such excessively inadequate resources.

Your help is needed now to correct this.

Earlier I stated that due to the extreme costs of fire suppression, fewer funds and resources are available to support the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat. A program that emphasizes the innovative, cost-effective use of biomass is a prime example. Some examples of uses for biomass are wood-based nanotechnology; “green” building construction, including advanced composite materials; and certain aspects of energy production, such as torrefaction, which removes moisture and volatiles from woody biomass, leaving bio-coal, advanced, more-efficient form of wood for energy. Such uses offer pragmatic market-based solutions to help forests become more resilient to such disturbances as widespread catastrophic fire loss. Biomass uses are outcomes from restorative actions to our forests.

It is estimated that a strong, well-established program in cost-effective biomass uses could create high-value markets from low-value wood that would otherwise be left dead or dying. Combined with a more adequate timber harvesting program, this could reasonably help restore up to 19 to 20 million forested acres annually. About one half of the nation’s 885 million acres of forestland currently requires some type of restorative action. This pace and scale of restoration could reduce future fire-suppression costs in the range of 12 to15 percent (some suggest as high as 23 percent)—about $350 to $500 million based on the 2017 fire-suppression costs by the Forest Service. Simply put, it makes good economic sense to aggressively invest in biomass uses — as part of the overall forest management strategy — to help achieve more-resilient forests. For reference, an aggressive investment in biomass uses by the Forest Service would be about $33 million in years 1 to 3, or about two firefighting shifts.

In my previous letter to you on April 9, 2018, I attached a draft Executive Order that I believe will help improve the management of the nation’s forests so these forests become healthy, sustainable and more resistant to disturbances [wildfires]. As a way to focus the necessary required actions that we face, I still believe an Executive Order is appropriate. It should be approved, signed and deployed. That draft Executive Order is attached to this letter in case the previous one was lost with my earlier communique.

Please allow me to summarize:
1. The management of the nation’s forests, especially the National Forests, need immediate, aggressive attention.

2. Years of shifting resources (skills, money and projects) from non-fire work to the fire effort has created a huge gap in the ability of the Forest Service to carryout forest management actions on the ground. Thus, wildfires are larger and more intense than ever before.

3. The current 2018 budget; the 2019 proposed budget; and, the latest Senate and House Action on the proposed budget do not address, in any significant way, the required forest management needs of our country, perhaps especially those on the National Forests. Thus, large, high intensity wildfires will not subside.

4. The so called “fire fix”, if deployed in 2020 can help slow the shift of non-fire activities for the fire effort. But, we cannot let the “fire fix” keep us from understanding that the real brass ring that the Forest Service is searching for is effective fire management resulting from aggressive forest management. That is, the fire fix is only the first step toward a forest fix.

5. As the 2018 fires season unfolds, it is easy to forecast another destructive fire season and $5 billion will be expended by federal, state and local sources to suppress wildfires across the country.

6. Funding for forest management actions, including targeted hazardous fuels treatment, is woefully inadequate. In fact, at the current funding level, forest health will continue to decline and the impacts of wildfires on the land and people’s lives will only get worse. A budget increase in the range of +$1.3 to +$2.2 billion is required. Eventually, this amount can be reduced as aggressive forest management enables fire management to take place and fire suppression costs begin to decline.

United States taxpayers are losing $70 to $350 billion a year in wildfire-related damages to infrastructure, public health, and natural resources. Wildfires are a major cause of losses to the forest-products industry and rural communities, especially, are at peril. Fuel accumulations have enhanced high-intensity wildland fires. There are more than a billion “burnable” acres across America and an estimated 120 million people in more than 46 million homes are at risk due to wildfire; 72,000 communities are directly in harm’s way. Thousands of heroic firefighters have died protecting people and property. How many more reasons does it take before we can begin to improve America’s forests so fire can be used as a conservation tool and no longer feared for their destruction. We need your Administration to act. Clearly, now is this time. Positive impacts will be immediate.

Very respectfully,
Michael T. Rains

Michael T. Rains: Letter to the President